Hannah and Her Admirers

Hannah and Her Admirers

Margarethe von Trotta’s biopic of Hannah Arendt is a film about ideas that remains intellectually detached from them.


If films were horses, almost no one would have placed even a $2 bet on Hannah Arendt, the recent biopic by the independent German filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta. How did a film that reprises the fifty-year-old controversy about what the German-Jewish refugee and political philosopher thought and wrote in 1963 about the kidnapping and trial of Adolf Eichmann become the most talked-about art-house movie of this past summer, and one of the most improbable independent-film successes in recent memory? There have been any number of movies about writers and artists, from Michelangelo to Truman Capote, made by directors of varying intellectual abilities in both Hollywood and Europe, but very few biopics made about intellectuals or philosophers. And with good reason: however wrongly, the lives of writers are thought to be sexy and exciting—think Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dinesen, Lillian Hellman. In contrast, the lives of intellectuals are thought to be deadly dull. It was said of Kant that one would be hard-pressed to infer the existence of the two sexes from his work. So imagine a biopic in which the philosopher is portrayed tramping around eighteenth-century Königsberg, giving his tutorials, writing The Critique of Pure Reason and, perhaps in order to spice up the plot, dashing off a stern letter to his erstwhile disciple Johann Gottlieb Fichte, warning him of the dangers of radical idealism. Its appeal would be, shall we say, somewhat circumscribed, no matter how buttery the popcorn.

But having made biographical films about the medieval mystic Hildegard of Bingen and Rosa Luxemburg—both of which starred Barbara Sukowa, who also plays the title role in Hannah Arendt—von Trotta is the only living director with a major body of work who could conceivably have mastered so austere and complicated a figure as Arendt. In terms of film history, only the imaginative re-creations of the lives of great European figures—Socrates, the Medicis, Descartes, Pascal and Louis XIV—that Roberto Rossellini made during the last two decades of his life, after he had abandoned the conventional cinema, provide any appropriate point of comparison with what von Trotta has attempted. But Rossellini’s films are tremendously detached, both cinematically and intellectually, eschewing close-ups and crosscutting, as well as all the other traditional storytelling methods that he had used so brilliantly in his great early neorealist films like Rome, Open City and Paisan, and later in the films with Ingrid Bergman such as Stromboli and Journey to Italy that he made in Europe in the 1950s. For Rossellini, they were teaching instruments, not films in the conventional sense. 

Von Trotta’s ambitions—visually and narratively—have always been more traditional. Martin Heidegger, who was both Arendt’s teacher and lover during her student days at the University of Marburg in the mid-1920s, once remarked that there was nothing interesting to say about the life of a philosopher, only about the work. But von Trotta shows how foolish a claim that was. Her film has rightly been praised for portraying thinking on-screen in a manner that isn’t boring in the slightest. To be sure, von Trotta has her tricks: Arendt was a prodigious smoker, and her addiction is used throughout the film as something of a visual gimmick—wisps of cigarette smoke as eye candy, as it were. But first and foremost, von Trotta has Barbara Sukowa playing Arendt, and she is one of the great actresses of our time. There is also a superb supporting cast, most notably Axel Milberg, who plays Arendt’s second husband, Heinrich Blücher, with understated confidence. And Ulrich Noethen delivers a very strong performance as the philosopher Hans Jonas, whom von Trotta presents, somewhat inaccurately, as Arendt’s only serious intellectual antagonist. 

Yet von Trotta and her screenwriting partner Pamela Katz fail miserably with the American characters, not a single one of whom is remotely credible. Janet McTeer is a wonderful actress, and as is obviously not the case with Sukowa’s Arendt, there are moments when McTeer does physically resemble Arendt’s great friend Mary McCarthy. But to anyone familiar even in passing with McCarthy’s work or aware of the cultural role she played in New York in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, the character as written is a travesty. Because von Trotta’s McCarthy is so busy reproaching Arendt for tolerating Blücher’s infidelities, or defending her after the Eichmann book appears, McTeer is denied the chance to convey any sense of McCarthy’s enormously cultivated sensibility and breadth of knowledge, both of which are brilliantly on display in Between Friends, the volume of the Arendt-McCarthy correspondence published in 1995. 

But the missteps don’t end there. The depiction of the in-house discussions at The New Yorker between its editor, William Shawn, and members of his staff about whether they should publish Arendt’s report on the Eichmann trial is simply risible. Shawn, the most restrained of men, never resembled the hard-boiled editor that von Trotta and Katz seem to have taken straight from The Front Page or His Girl Friday. As for the snarling bureaucrats at the New School for Social Research, where Arendt taught—who demand her resignation and then furiously and ostentatiously walk out of the public lecture in which she defends Eichmann in Jerusalem—I fear that, to twist a famous remark of Dorothy Parker’s, those roles as written are a little too close for comfort to seeming like a road show for The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

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Von Trotta and Katz have said that when they were first developing the project, they considered making a film that encompassed Arendt’s entire life rather than focusing on the Eichmann affair, and they even produced an earlier version of the script for it. Little remains of that project save some scenes in the biopic, presented as flashbacks, from Arendt’s student days at Marburg. And these are a mistake. It is bad enough to have the young Arendt (played by Friederike Becht—who, unlike Sukowa, bears an astonishing resemblance to her), looking up adoringly at Heidegger from her seat in the lecture hall, but the scene where she waits for the great man tremulously at the doorway to her room as he bounds up the stairs like a rutting stag is cringe-inducing.

The Israeli characters fare no better. The Zionist leader Kurt Blumenfeld, who had been Arendt’s mentor in the German Zionist movement, is portrayed as a doddering sentimentalist straight out of Fiddler on the Roof. In reality, as his correspondence with Arendt amply demonstrates, Blumenfeld was a figure of considerable depth, tough-mindedness and cultivation, an ironist who could say that he had become a Zionist “by the grace of Goethe.”

The film ascribes to Blumenfeld the famous accusation actually leveled against Arendt by the great scholar of Kabbalistic Judaism, Gershom Scholem, who in an exchange of letters over Eichmann in Jerusalem disdainfully declared himself unable to take seriously her thesis about the banality of evil, while also reproving her for what he considered the arrogant, heartless tone of the book’s portrayal of the Judenräte, the Jewish councils, caught up in the Nazi machinery of extermination. What makes it to the screen, though, is only Scholem upbraiding her for her lack of love for the Jewish people. In her reply, Arendt conceded that Scholem was right, explaining that she loved no people, only her friends. The substitution of Blumenfeld for Scholem would be reasonable artistic license but for the fact that the exchange between Scholem and Arendt was a duel of equals: coldness for coldness, arrogance for arrogance. Yet von Trotta and Katz do not simply transfer Scholem’s words from his mouth to Blumenfeld’s. They have the Zionist utter them tearfully, from what is implied to be his deathbed—an old man unable to understand how “my Hannah” could have betrayed her own people in such a terrible fashion. One can all but hear the surge of metaphorical violins as Blumenfeld rolls over and turns his back to her.

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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One gets little sense of this in Hannah Arendt. Ironically, in interviews it has been Sukowa, rather than von Trotta or Katz, who has seemed most dismayed by the severity of the woman she plays and most reluctant to endorse entirely the praise for her character that the film largely offers. In a public conversation after a screening of the film, Sukowa told Roger Berkowitz, the director of the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College, that people reproached Arendt for her ironic tone. And she added, “I completely understood why people were so angry. This happened in a time very close to the Holocaust…. ‘Banality’ could trigger something, it was like a slap in the face…. I found in a way shocking that…with all her intelligence [Arendt] was not aware that that could happen.”

Take away the violence of the attacks on Arendt that are accurately evoked in the film, and you are left with the perfectly sensible critique of Eichmann in Jerusalem that Sukowa echoes. As Walter Laqueur stated in an exchange with Arendt in 1966, she had been attacked “not so much for what she said, but for how she said it”—not just a failure of tone, but for being humanly tone deaf. When Gershom Scholem reproached Arendt for her lack of love of the Jewish people, whether she was actually right or wrong (in fact, here I think she was right), she could reply with dignity and conviction, pointing out that, among other things, because she was Jewish herself, such love was suspect. “I cannot love myself,” she wrote, “or anything I know is part and parcel of my own person.” But that was not all Scholem had taxed her with. What Sukowa called irony, Scholem called flippancy. “It is that heartless, frequently almost sneering and malicious tone with which these matters, touching the very quick of our life, are treated in your book to which I take exception,” he wrote.

Arendt was unmoved. “You know as well as I,” she wrote back, “how often those who merely report certain unpleasant facts are accused of lack of soul, lack of heart….We both know, in other words, how often these emotions are used in order to conceal factual truth.” But here Arendt was being disingenuous, and not just to Scholem. In a letter to Mary McCarthy in September 1963, Arendt wrote, “As I see it, there are no ‘ideas’ in this Report, there are only facts with a few conclusions.” But less than two years later, Arendt would confide to McCarthy that she had been the only reader to understand that “I wrote this book in a curious euphoria.” And she concluded, “Don’t tell anybody: is it not proof positive that I have no ‘soul’?” Was this a joke on Arendt’s part? Given the viciousness of so many of the attacks leveled against her, it may well be that her reference to having no soul was nothing more than another bit of ironizing. But what Arendt calls her “euphoria”—and here there is no reason not to take her at her word—can just as easily be construed as the flippancy detected by Scholem or the irony that so troubled Sukowa. As a general rule, if everyone reads you differently than you read yourself, the chances are infinitesimal that your reading is the correct one, much as you may wish it otherwise.

In any case, that euphoric Arendt is absent from von Trotta and Katz’s interpretation. They ably portray her courage, her gift for friendship, her relationship with Blücher and its touching complexities, the indomitability of her spirit and, of course, the depth and force of her intelligence. But the success of their film in portraying thinking is not matched by a similar success in portraying the particulars of Arendt’s thoughts and how reliable her perceptions actually were. In writing her New Yorker pieces, Arendt had relied, by her own admission, on Raul Hilberg’s magisterial history of the Shoah, The Destruction of the European Jews, published in 1961. Most valuable of all to her was Hilberg’s account of the role of the Judenräte during the Shoah, and to what degree the leaders of these councils had in effect collaborated in the Jews’ extermination. Her conclusion was that had the Jews been leaderless and unorganized, there would have been chaos and misery, but nowhere near as many as 6 million would have been murdered. It was this position, far more than her thinking about the banality of evil, that had set so much of the official Jewish world against her. And while Hilberg did not agree with her, as he makes clear in a few icy paragraphs of his memoir, The Politics of Memory, he nonetheless defended Arendt publicly during the controversy.

Arendt seems to have taken Hilberg’s support for granted. Von Trotta and Katz portray her loneliness, but while they show Arendt as often peremptory, for them her arrogance is the arrogance of the lonely seeker after the truth. In fact, in many ways it was simply the arrogance of arrogance. After Arendt’s death, Hilberg—who believed that she had not just learned from him, but had plagiarized him as well—went through her papers in the Library of Congress. There he found a letter to Arendt from Princeton University Press, thanking her for her evaluation of Hilberg’s manuscript, which had been rejected because its subject had already been covered by other historians. As Hilberg wrote bitterly, “Who was I, after all? She, the thinker, and I, the laborer who wrote only a simple report, albeit one that was indispensable once she had exploited it: that was the natural order of her universe.”

And a very Heideggerian order it was: one in which the philosopher—that is, the thinker—sits at the apex of the culture. Von Trotta captures well Arendt’s idea of “thoughtlessness” as being the explanatory key to why Eichmann acted as he did, and of such thoughtlessness being characteristic of modern mass society. The implicit message is that the Holocaust was unique, and von Trotta has Arendt say as much in the film. But viewed from the perspective of 2013, this seems more peculiar than self-evident. Like all of us, Arendt was a product of her times. If philosophical rather than historical explanations were what persuaded her, well, German philosophers have mostly tended to look at historians the way doctors look at dentists—which is to say, with the tolerant condescension that so enraged Hilberg.

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And yet, between the time Eichmann in Jerusalem was published and the time von Trotta began to shoot her film, an enormous amount of historical work had been done on Eichmann and the murder of European Jewry, and much of it either modifies or challenges Arendt’s account. Christopher Browning—whose Ordinary Men (1992), a book that studied the members of a single German unit, Reserve Police Battalion 101, active in the Judeocide, seems to confirm Arendt’s thesis about the banality of evil—has nonetheless insisted that the concept should not be applied to Eichmann, whose evil was anything but thoughtless and not, in Arendt’s terms, banal. Long before the Mossad caught up with him, Eichmann did a series of interviews in Argentina with the Dutch Nazi Willem Sassen that made clear the fury of his anti-Semitism, and thus appear to contradict Arendt’s claim that ideology played only a limited role in the motivations for his crimes. And further work on the Jewish Councils—from Isaiah Trunk’s Judenrat, published in 1972, to Claude Lanzmann’s just-released film The Last of the Unjust (about Benjamin Murmelstein, the last president of the Jewish Council of the Theresienstadt concentration camp; the material was shot while Lanzmann, who in many ways is the anti–Hannah Arendt, was filming Shoah)—has led to a far more nuanced view of what these men did or could have done.  As the great Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer put it: “The reactions of Judenräte ranged from massive resistance to total submission, from cynical disregard of the welfare of the people they represented to total commitment.” One example of the resistance that Bauer pointed to occurred in the ghetto of Minsk, the fourth-largest in Europe, where the underground resistance movement was led by Hersh Smolar, organized under the aegis of the head of the Judenrat there, Ilya Mishkin.

For entirely understandable and legitimate reasons, both philosophical and (though she almost certainly would have denied it) biographical, Arendt believed that the Shoah was not only the greatest crime in human history (a claim for which an argument can unquestionably be made), but an unprecedented one. The concluding pages of Eichmann in Jerusalem are suffused with her fear that, as she put it, “once a specific crime has appeared for the first time, its reappearance is more likely than its initial emergence could ever have been.” For Arendt, Eichmann was nothing less than a new type of criminal, one who “commits his crimes under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or feel he is doing wrong.” But it is not clear that she was right. Between the publication of The Origins of Totalitarianism in 1951 and Eichmann in 1963, Arendt had moved from a reliance on the idea of radical evil to the idea that the essence of evil is always banal, and thus that because only the good could have moral and philosophical depth, only good could be radical. As Scholem and others tried repeatedly to point out to her, such a position was highly debatable. What was not debatable about her claim—and, instead, was surely wrong—was her belief that there was anything new about thoughtless bureaucrats providing the necessary administrative support for genocide. One has only to think of the bookkeepers in Liverpool in the eighteenth century, with their tidy ledgers where the profits and losses from the Atlantic slave trade were toted up, to see the essential fallacy in Arendt’s position. The bookkeepers, too, were thoughtless little Eichmanns in their own way.

And that is assuming, as Arendt did, that Eichmann’s anti-Semitism wasn’t the central motivation for his actions. But what if, as I believe, she was wrong? What if, in reality, people commit mass murder because they have indeed thought about it and believe that the people being exterminated—the Jewish “bacillus” for the Nazis, but also the rebellious Herero, about whom Arendt herself had written in The Origins of Totalitarianism; the urban middle class for the Khmer Rouge; the Tutsi “cockroaches” for the Hutu Power militias—need to be, deserve to be exterminated for their refusal to submit, for the danger they pose to some radiant future, for standing in the way of others trying to secure their legitimate rights? In her Kantian way, Arendt truly believed there was goodness inherent in the activity and practice of thinking. Nothing could be more philosophical—or more ahistorical.

What is so curious about von Trotta’s film is its combination of an intellectual ambition to make Arendt’s ideas comprehensible to a new generation and its antiquarian refusal of any dialectical or critical relation to these ideas. It is a film about ideas that remains intellectually detached from them. Despite her immense talent as a director of actors, perhaps with Hannah Arendt von Trotta is not so far from those late Rossellini films after all, and is nowhere near being as diligent or trustworthy.

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