2011-2020DramaGermanyMargarethe von Trotta

Margarethe von Trotta – Hannah Arendt (2012)

A reminder of the New School philosophy professor Hannah Arendt, and the controversy she provoked when she published her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, might not be such a bad thing in an era in which so many feel so compelled to simplify societies’ most galling atrocities. Just as it’s more inviting to believe that various terrorist factions around the world are inhuman creatures concerned only with gobbling up America’s precious freedom, it’s also more comfortable to deny the architects and executioners of the Holocaust their humanity, as that distances everyone else from their own potential capacity for cruelty.

Hannah Arendt’s most striking quality, and it’s not insignificant, is director Margarethe von Trotta’s refusal to fossilize the controversies she dramatizes; her film isn’t a civics lesson that invites us to regard the characters with safe, nauseating superiority, encouraging us by implication to congratulate ourselves for our evolution beyond the concerns addressed. The film honors the daring of Arendt’s (Barbara Sukowa) work, which most disturbingly examines how a government can render outrageously cruel and disgusting acts palpable through insidious measures of bureaucratic dehumanization, without cheapening her claims as an obvious retrospective conclusion.

The film is refreshingly dry and crisp, and it’s as pragmatic as its hero. We’re allowed to see in an unusual amount of detail the extended process of a writer debating and revising her thoughts with remarkably little flashy plotting or melodramatics. Von Trotta sympathizes with Arendt’s devotion to fact and observation, in place of explicit and obvious sympathy, as necessary to plumbing subjects that are often and understandably clouded in tragic, emotional baggage. The pointed lack of emotion in Arendt’s writing, which her detractors cited as evidence of her snobbishness as well as her hatred for Jews, was probably an expression of empathy (Arendt and her husband escaped an internment camp), a refusal to condescend to the victims of the Holocaust with rote sentimentality.

But von Trotta does indulge some misleading sentimentality of her own by staging events in such a way as to compromise the validity of Arendt’s detractors wholesale (they’re presented here as prudes straight out of a formulaic censorship fable). There are rational reasons to object to Arendt’s assertions, such as her ludicrous claim that Adolf Eichmann was completely unable to comprehend the human cost of his actions, which traffic in generalities for the sake of establishing the grander, and valid, philosophy regarding, well, “the banality of evil.” Hannah Arendt is assured and compelling, and it’s gratifying to see a film that actively courts the mind rather than the heart, but the deck’s stacked. Von Trotta, like Arendt herself, is too confident of her own conclusions.

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  1. Margarethe
    Von Trotta’s Recent Film: “Hannah Arendt” (2012) is not about the trial of Adolf Eichmann (the Nazi
    transportation administrator sending Jews and non-Jews to extermination-camps)
    that was held in Jerusalem in 1961and which Hannah Arendt attended as a
    journalist working for The New Yorker, and it is not about her love relations
    with Martin Heidegger which intrigues the public already for decades, and it is
    about the very personality and destiny of Hannah Arendt only to the degree that
    she personifies, for Von Trotta, philosophical thinking about life
    (disinterested, dedicated to truth and independent from “profane“ motivations).
    Arendt’s understanding (celebrated by Von Trotta) of Eichmann criminal behavior
    creates a breakthrough in how we perceive human reality – either we approach it
    from the depths of our emotions or, conversely, through existentially
    scientific thinking. Our emotional life grows from pre-democratic traditions –
    it includes righteously vengeful impulsivity that should be sublimated through
    the effort of democratic reason.

    Criminal (anti-democratic) behavior
    has to be understood rationally to make possible its future prevention.
    Scientific understanding of crime doesn’t interfere with punishment as our
    unconscious belief suggests. That’s what the critics of Arendt’s objective
    understanding of Eichmann’s crimes don’t get – they are afraid that if Arendt’s
    definition of the nature of evil is correct, Eichmann will not be punished.
    Punishment of the crimes committed is absolutely necessary but it is not
    suppose to be determined by our prejudices – those flowers of our impulsive or
    compulsive emotions.

    When truth is worked out
    analytically and explained scholarly – with the language of truth, without
    propagandist or subjectivist distortions, it gives us the chance to trace the
    pure logic of criminal behavior, and then it becomes possible to try to connect
    different historical epochs that habitually seem incomparable. This
    philosophical “miracle” of comparing the psychological essence of Eichmann’s
    crimes with that of the reactions of many on Arendt’s view about these crimes
    Von Trotta’s film creates not only before our very eyes, but before our minds.
    The psychological reality (be it intolerance – fanaticism, or indifference
    –turning the soul off) has a “magic” ability to be easily transformed into
    criminal behavior, and Von Trotta’s film psycho-dramatically transferred us
    from WWII crimes against humanity to New-York of Sixties where Hannah Arendt had
    a teaching job.

    The film gives us chance to
    experience what happened when the publishing, academic and Jewish communities
    learned about Arendt’s interpretation of Eichmann’s crimes. According to her,
    crimes, even arch-crimes may be committed not by monsters and devil‘s salesmen
    and agents but by an ordinary, trivial people who are just trying to survive,
    make careers, use the opportunity to move up the social ladder, who try to be
    an exemplary employees and please their employers and provide a better life for
    their families and children. In other words, it is enough not to learn how to
    think more philosophically (existentially spiritually, disinterestedly), not to
    pay attention to the difference between truth and not-truth, not to learn how
    to separate truth from our wishful thinking and from our naïve instinctive
    desire to take advantage of others by deploying instinctively manipulative –
    propagandist “thinking”, etc., to be seriously vulnerable to become part of any
    type of organized (ideologically justified) criminality.

    People started to accuse Arendt in
    protecting Eichmann, in hating Jews, in being self-hating Jew and many other
    “sins” and to try to hurt her (by publicly labeling and insulting her and
    making steps towards taking her job from her). Because she put into practice
    her freedom of scientific speech they became haters of free speech and free
    thinking. Their reaction made them in psychological essence like Soviet
    Communists or German Nazis. Some publishers were afraid to lose their subscribers,
    academicians – of losing their jobs, and many in Jewish community started
    unconsciously use the disaster of Holocaust to allow themselves pompous
    narcissistic righteousness.

    Sometimes it’s enough to have an
    encounter with free speech (contradicting our views) to be transformed into
    anti-democratic zealots and fanatics ready for semi-legal or illegal behavior.
    Von Trotta transforms this paradigmatic situation (that we today observe in the
    neo-conservative politicians and financial manipulators) into a philosophical
    and cognitive psychotherapy with the viewers. She shows us the very emotional
    mechanism at work inside people and nations – of phobic aversion to free speech
    and free thinking as soon as its content appears to be contrary to our views,
    of proclivity to react on free speech as if it is an attack on us by the hordes
    of the devil, and then we feel ourselves as guardians of godly truth only we
    can understand. That’s exactly how the Soviet Communists and German Nazis felt
    and acted.

    Barbara Sukowa‘s Hanna Arendt is an
    exceptionally developed and mature personality – Arendt never passionately
    defends herself against the attacks on her thinking. She doesn’t protect
    herself psychologically with euphoric bravado either – she feels the pain from
    these attacks, but she continues to go about explaining what she thinks and why
    she thinks as she does. Sukowa makes Arendt a person of grace. Her presence on
    the screen as Hannah Arendt is a personification of a democratic personality –
    strong by the very absence of psychological armor and defensive alertness. We
    don’t see this type of female characters in American moves today, although they
    existed before, for example, Hannah Jelkes (Deborah Kerr) in “The Night of The
    Iguana” by John Huston (1964).

    Philosophically intellectual women
    exist in USA today but they are not represented in commercial cinema oriented
    on typical, spectacular and easy for perception deformed by entertainment. It
    is very bad especially for American girls who don’t see intellectual women as role-models
    on the cinematic screen. We need our own, “American grown” Hannah Arendts,
    Margarethe von Trottas and Barbara Sukowas.

    By Victor Enyutin

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