Academic journal article Jewish Film & New Media

Into the Woods: Eichmann, Heidegger, and Margarethe Von Trotta's Hannah Arendt

Academic journal article Jewish Film & New Media

Into the Woods: Eichmann, Heidegger, and Margarethe Von Trotta's Hannah Arendt

Article excerpt

Into the Woods Eichmann, Heidegger, and Margarethe von Trotta's Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt (2012). Directed by Margarethe von Trotta; screenplay by von Trotta and Pam Katz. Produced by Heimatfilm (Germany), Amour Fou (Luxembourg), Sophie Dulac Productions (France), co-producer, Metro Communications, ARD Deneto Film (Germany), co-production; Bayerische Rundfunk (Germany), co-production; Westdeutscher Rundfunk (Germany), co-production. 113 minutes.

I shall never be able to possess you, but from now on you will belong to my life, which shall increase through you. . . . The path your young life will take is hidden. We will submit to it.

-Martin Heidegger, letter to Hannah Arendt, November 10, 19251

Hannah Arendt was one of the great political thinkers of the twentieth century. A German Jewish refugee, briefly interned in Gurs, France, by the pro-Nazi Vichy regime in 1940, she escaped to the United States in 1941. Living in New York City, she wrote major studies of, among other subjects, totalitarianism, revolution, and violence-how people use and abuse power at a mass level. When, in 1960, Israeli agents kidnapped and brought to Israel for trial the infamous Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann-then living under an assumed name in Argentina-Arendt covered the trial for the New Yorker, and her writing later became the basis for her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.2 Her experience on this assignment and in its aftermath are now the subject of a strikingly chiaroscuro film, Hannah Arendt, by renowned German filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta.

Arendt (here ably played by Barbara Sukowa, who perhaps best resembles the portrait of Arendt issued on a German postage stamp in 19883), advanced two painful ideas that made her the target of fierce criticism and controversy, chiefly among many fellow Jews: first, that Eichmann was not, as Israeli prosecutor Gideon Hausner alleged, a monster or psychopath but rather a frighteningly normal individual who had surrendered the capacity for critical judgment and for understanding the human consequences of his actions; and second (in context, a miniscule digression by Arendt), that the logistics of mass murder (Eichmann's special domain of expertise) was helped along significantly by a problematic cooperation of the Judenräte, the Jewish ghetto councils the Nazis had appointed to supply victims for deportation to death camps. (Many a Judenrat member, it must be remembered, had acted in a well-meaning and sometimes successful attempt to save lives.)

That Arendt's argument would raise hackles was unavoidable. That its force and significance would be misunderstood was equally so. Arendt was careful to point out that she wasn't blaming European Jews for their fate, nor finding any moral equivalence between their acts under duress and Eichmann's crimes. Nor, in finding in Eichmann what she famously termed "the banality of evil," was she mitigating in any way the depth of his guilt. On the contrary, it was only in such terms that guilt could be assigned altogether. Only if Nazis are human, Arendt insisted, can they properly stand for judgment in a court of law; only then does judgment, with any credible measure of moral or civil certainty, make sense. In Arendt's words:

[I]t would have been very comforting indeed to believe that Eichmann was a monster, even though, if he had been, Israel's case against him would have collapsed, or, at the very least, lost all interest. Surely, one can hardly call upon the whole world and gather correspondents from the four corners of the earth in order to display Bluebeard in the dock. The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were terribly and terrifyingly normal.4

We of course want Eichmann to be less like us. By removing the sanitary line between ourselves and the malignant mass consequences of thoughtlessness, Arendt justly made readers uncomfortable. …

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