Cinema review

Hannah Arendt gets the smart, nuanced biopic she deserves

Hitting theaters Friday, a new movie shows how unhappy the German-Jewish, New York-based author was to have reached her incendiary conclusions about Eichmann and the ‘banality of evil’

A scene from 'Hannah Arendt' (photo credit: courtesy Zeitgeist Films)
A scene from 'Hannah Arendt' (photo credit: courtesy Zeitgeist Films)

The most Jewish scene in the history of cinema comes in Barbra Streisand’s somewhat unfairly maligned “Yentl.” On the back of an ox cart en route to the Yeshiva, Streisand’s Yentl/Anshel and Mandy Patinkin’s Avigdor begin their dangerous flirtation by (dig this) arguing Talmudic semantics. “Would you like to discuss a page of Talmud?” she asks. Handing her a book he responds “I’ll state the premise, you dispute it!”

There’s something important here about the Jewish psyche and it is relevant to Margaethe von Trotta’s just released, dazzling new film “Hannah Arendt.” It is expected that we – the People of the Book – the underwriters of Public Radio programs like “All Things Considered,” have a desire, a need, an expectation to see an issue from all sides. To take a passage from the Talmud and be able to argue either side, as if drawing straws, is no mean feat – it is the mark of a dexterous mind and a voracious intellectual capacity and it is a part of the Jewish tradition to this day.

For all things except one: the Holocaust.

“Hannah Arendt” the film is a spotlight on Hannah Arendt the German-Jewish New York-based intellectual and writer – the woman who covered the Adolph Eichmann trial in Jerusalem for the New Yorker Magazine and came back with something other than the expected narrative.

By the time of Eichmann’s capture the noted author (and favorite student of Martin Heidegger) had already written “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” among the first major pieces of philosophical writing to tackle Nazism. She presented herself to William Shawn of The New Yorker for an assignment in Israel. She asked more than told (much to the chagrin of some of the other editors) but he recognized great potential in having her witness this part of history. As is teased out along the course of the film, she left Germany without seeing the Nazis firsthand, though did spend time in a French detention camp, and only escaped to America due to a combination of connections and luck.

On a bus in Jerusalem. Arendt covered the Eichmann trial for the New Yorker. (photo credit: Zeitgeist Films)
On a bus in Jerusalem. Arendt covered the Eichmann trial for the New Yorker. (photo credit: Zeitgeist Films)

It is to von Trotta’s credit that the Eichmann trial concludes at around the 40 minute mark of this two-hour movie. The remainder is (mostly) set back in New York City, where Arendt thinks and smokes and argues with her friends and evades the deadlines of her editors. (The unadulterated chutzpah on her behalf ought to make any 21st century journalist chuckle – try slamming the phone down on The New Yorker today and see where that will get you.)

After much internal and external discussion she presents her conclusions, and the work contains two doozies. The first is, today, practically accepted as axiomatic. Eichmann was not a bloodthirsty, Jew-hating monster. He was a cog in the machine. He kept the trains running on time. He was a bureaucrat, an efficient but simple-minded individual. It is from Arendt’s observations on Eichmann that we get the now ubiquitous phrase “the banality of evil.”

The other major point of contention – one that is not a central premise of her work, but undeniably important – is the disconcerting notion that the Shoah could not have been so comprehensive without some measure of collaboration from Jewish leaders. “Something between resistance and cooperation” as she puts it in a gripping third act lecture.

For 1962 this is too much for the New York Jewish (and non-Jewish) intellectual class to bear. (Frankly, it doesn’t go down easy in 2013, either.) Her work makes her persona non grata at the universities where she teaches and the dinner parties she attends. She’s even paid a visit by old Zionist friends who suggest (strong-arm?) that she rescind further publication.

It’s here that von Trotta’s film is more than just a reproduction of fact. With Barbara Sukowa playing the lead role, there is a noticeable sadness behind the fiery intellect. It comes in flashes as soon as she starts watching the trial. She isn’t happy to have these beliefs. She doesn’t want to bring her opinion to the world. The intellectual’s quest for the truth, however, demands that she not censor herself.

Back in NY, Arendt became persona non grata for her 'banality of evil' ideology. (photo credit: Zeitgeist Films)
Back in NY, Arendt became persona non grata for her ‘banality of evil’ ideology. (photo credit: Zeitgeist Films)

There are also interpersonal dynamics at play, and there is the suggestion that she isn’t so much trying to mute Eichmann’s culpability as much as she is searching for a way to forgive her mentor, Heidegger. Whether or not Heidegger was a full-blooded Nazi is a debate that won’t be solved any time soon, but some of his actions don’t speak that well to his character. (He was a member of the Nazi Party, but stopped attending meetings after 1934.)

This all may sound all very heavy, but it is important to also point out that “Hannah Arendt” is also a good movie. Stimulating, smoke-filled conversation abounds in small Upper West Side apartments and everyone barks brilliant bon mots with aplomb. You can also play a nice game of spot the mid-century intellectual, with Mary McCarthy, Norman Podhoretz, Calvin Trillan and others popping up behind lit cigarettes and phrases like “the perversity of brilliance.” Janet McTeer’s portrayal of McCarthy, offering a bit of comic relief and an observer to all the Mittel-European weightiness. She even challenges Arendt to a game of pool.

Much has been written about how the Eichmann trial was an absolute necessity for the nascent State of Israel to find closure to the Holocaust. It is to Israel’s great strength, however, that it came not in the form of a unanimous revenge killing, but with giving witness, no matter how painful. Moreover, Arendt’s dispassionate commentary, even if unpleasant, made the experience even more profound. While other countries simply execute their villains off-camera, the Jewish People had its day of reckoning/reconciliation in front of the entire world. And then argued about it.

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