This, in her own words, was one of director Margarethe von Trotta’s main challenge when shooting her 2012 movie ‘Hannah Arendt’, which will be released in North America this spring. Arendt, a German-Jewish intellectual who narrowly escaped concentration camp and survived the war in New York, became most famous in the early 1960s with her coverage of the Eichmann trials in Jerusalem for The New Yorker. It is on this period of her life that the movie mostly zooms in.
The movie is mostly about what Hannah Arendt - as a person, lover, intellectual, friend, woman - went through while engaging with and covering the Eichmann trial. The film is a fantastically entertaining, at times even nail-biting-tense piece of cinema. Von Trotta has turned what in terms of plot could be a rather boring and uneventful story into a veritable thriller. Hence her quote above, which summarizes the challenge.
We have commented earlier on this blog on some of Arendt’s intellectual heritage, and the movie remarkably manages to capture some of that. The reason though why it is a highly recommendable watch has to do with the fact that it allows an insight into the life, struggles, calamities and temptations of a true intellectual as Hannah Arendt was.
Arendt, a well regarded philosopher by the time she accepts the assignment from The New Yorker to go to Jerusalem to cover the Eichmann-trials, appears as a scholar which allows to be inspired, impressed, confused and disrupted by exposing herself to real life, to ongoing events. It is impressive to watch how Arendt stays clear of preconceived role-bound notions (as a German, as a Jew, as a woman etc.) which many contemporary commentators and many of her friends and peers brought to the analysis of the Eichmann case. She allows herself to be taken in and to create her very own perception of how the events, in particular the testimony by Eichmann himself, unfold.
And she comes to her very own conclusions. For her, Eichmann does not qualify for many of the attributes he was given at the time: a monster, an anti-Semite, an inherently evil person. On the contrary, in her final speech in the movie in defense of her conclusions she summarizes her perception:
The trouble with a Nazi criminal like Eichmann was that he insisted on renouncing all personal qualities, as if there was nobody left to be either punished or forgiven. He protested time and again, contrary to the Prosecution's assertions, that he had never done anything out of his own initiative, that he had no intentions whatsoever, good or bad, that he had only obeyed orders. This typical Nazi plea makes it clear that the greatest evil in the world is the evil committed by nobodies. Evil committed by men without motive, without convictions, without wicked hearts or demonic wills, by human beings who refuse to be persons. And it is this phenomenon that I have called the “banality of evil.“ (Emphasis added)
At the time, these ideas were new and in their implications very much contested, even incendiary. Hannah Arendt wrote her article and the subsequent book long before the work of the likes of Zygmunt Baumann gave those ideas a coherent philosophical home and legitimacy. She highlighted the effects of bureaucracy and imposed social super-structures on the de-personalisation of the individual long before we had the empirical ‘test’ of these effects in research such as the Stanford Prison Experiments.
To stick to your ideas despite resistance is the great virtue of Hannah Arendt in the movie. She loses friends, almost gets fired from her job, fends off death threats and overcomes other obstacles. At the same time, she is shown also as deeply human and frail. The movie takes us through the pains and agonies which can sometimes accompany the formation and expression of new ideas. The working style, the procrastination, the obsession with a mission, the apparently chaotic process of working – all these are showcased in a way that stays clear of many clichés about intellectuals one normally encounters on screen.
This said, the movie is not without flaws. One of the most controversial points of Arendt, the alleged complicity of Jewish elites in the holocaust, is only insufficiently backed up and developed, which sort of sidetracks the narrative a little. This said though the movie is a must for anybody – women or men alike - interested in the process, challenges, pitfalls and highlights of the business of generating new ideas.