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Hannah and Her Admirers | The Nation

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Hannah and Her Admirers

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Barbara Sukowa in Hannah Arendt

Barbara Sukowa in Hannah Arendt

Even more far-fetched is the portrait of Siegfried Moses, a contemporary of Arendt’s whom she had also known in Zionist circles in Germany, and with whom she remained close (a letter from 1961 to Blücher recounts Moses’s meeting her at the airport when she came to Jerusalem to cover the Eichmann trial). Instead of the marzipan portrait of Blumenfeld, we get, quite literally, the Mossad. In von Trotta’s version of the scene, Arendt’s New Yorker articles have been met with gales of criticism, and she has fled with Mary McCarthy to a house in the country. During her stay, Arendt is shown walking along a deserted road when a car screeches to a halt in front of her; Moses and several goons get out and block her way. Moses then demands that she cancel her book’s publication in Israel. For a moment, it is not clear if he and his associates will let her go. The parallelism with the film’s pre-credit sequence, in which Mossad agents grab Eichmann on another lonely piece of country road, cannot be evaded. It would be one thing had such an event taken place. But in fact Moses, by then a member of the Israeli government, met Arendt by mutual arrangement in Switzerland—where she had gone to visit her teacher and friend, the philosopher Karl Jaspers—to try to dissuade her from publishing her New Yorker pieces on the Eichmann trial. She refused and he returned to Israel, but there is no historical basis for thinking that Moses made any threats whatsoever. 

It is surprising that von Trotta and Katz felt the need to distort the encounter to such an extent. Arendt is an icon, and far from being in danger of being knocked off her plinth, her stature has only grown in Europe and the United States since her death in 1975. Just as there are “writers’ writers”—Robert Louis Stevenson and William Trevor come to mind—so there are intellectuals’ intellectuals, a role that seems tailor-made to describe Arendt. The British political theorist Margaret Canovan has written that the “freedom from conventional labels is one of the sources of Hannah Arendt’s enduring fascination as a political thinker.” Von Trotta takes very much the same view in her film, portraying Arendt as the ultimate freethinker: able, indeed determined, to let nothing—not her own feelings, nor the feelings even of the people dearest to her—make her retreat from her own judgments, no matter how upsetting they might prove to be. 

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In the end, though, beyond the film’s many strengths and not inconsiderable weaknesses, the real interest of Hannah Arendt is its reprising of the Eichmann controversy. Von Trotta’s portrayal of thinking is very interesting and original, but the film is ultimately neither a portrait of pure thought nor a full biopic of Arendt’s life. Instead, the film is an account of what Arendt wrote—and, more to the point, an eloquent defense in its own right of her arguments—in Eichmann in Jerusalem. Some of the film’s admirers have denied this, insisting that because, near the film’s end, the Hans Jonas character gets to deliver a searing rebuttal to Arendt after she finishes her New School lecture, von Trotta’s presentation of the controversy is evenhanded. But this is special pleading, for with the exception of Jonas’s monologue, every other criticism of her, whether from New York intellectuals such as Lionel Abel and Norman Podhoretz, university administrators, Israelis or the anonymous hate mail Arendt receives—including a note from a neighbor scrawled in pencil that is hand-delivered by the building’s doorman—is presented either as grotesque (Abel and Podhoretz), splenetic (the administrators), pathetic (Blumenfeld) or crazed (the neighbor). 

Sometimes the film is hagiographic. At its end, Arendt is shown in her apartment reclining on a settee and smoking, after which a closing caption reads: “The problem of evil became the fundamental subject for Hannah Arendt. She returned to it over and over again and she was still struggling with it at the time of her death.” Not only is this false, but it also diminishes the work Arendt did during the remaining twelve years of her life. For if Arendt was concerned with one thing after the furor over the Eichmann book finally subsided, it was thinking, not evil. As Elisabeth Young-Bruehl put it in her definitive biography of Arendt, For Love of the World, “thinking, which prepares us to make judgments about the world, even about the most horrible things that happen in the world, was what Arendt’s theme became in the 1970s.”

What makes von Trotta and Katz’s misrepresentation so curious is that it is at odds with the argument they make in the film (not to mention with reality). While there is much discussion about Arendt’s idea of the banality of evil, the core of her effort to understand and manage some kind of account of Eichmann is rightly portrayed as being about the essential role of thinking in any decent politics or morality. Arendt made this argument in various ways, and von Trotta and Katz correctly put it at the center of their film’s climax, Arendt’s public lecture at the New School. (Katz in fact strung different texts together to make the speech, but it is entirely faithful to Arendt’s view.) As Arendt says in the film, “this inability to think created the possibility for many ordinary men to commit evil deeds on a gigantic scale, the likes of which one had never seen before…. The manifestation of the wind of thought is not knowledge but the ability to tell right from wrong, beautiful from ugly. And I hope that thinking gives people the strength to prevent catastrophes in these rare moments when the chips are down.”

The students in the audience greet these words with what in the old Soviet Union used to be called “stormy applause.” Despite the coda of Jonas coming up after the lecture and telling Arendt off before breaking relations with her (in fact they reconciled, and Jonas gave one of the eulogies at Arendt’s funeral), the audience is clearly meant to react the same way. But was she right? To state the obvious: in a film about ideas, about thinking, the quality of the thought—the truth or falsity of the ideas—has to be central. Von Trotta and Katz make as strong a case as can conceivably be made for these ideas, and if the thesis of Eichmann in Jerusalem seems right to you, it is likely that Hannah Arendt will sit well with you, too. Katz told an interviewer that “the intellectual goal of the movie for me was that people who perhaps didn’t have a philosophical background [could] read and understand what was meant by this oft-misused catch phrase ‘the banality of evil.’” But Katz has misconstrued the issue. The difficulty is not that Hannah Arendt CliffsNotes are in short supply, but that Arendt’s ideas in Eichmann, and the tone in which she chose to express them, are in fact extremely problematic. As the German historian Hans Mommsen, an admirer of Arendt’s, would put it, dryly but pointedly, in his preface to the German edition of Eichmann in Jerusalem: “The severity of her criticism and the unsparing way in which she argued seemed inappropriate given the deeply tragic nature of the subject with which she was dealing.”

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