Words & Deeds: 'HANNAH ARENDT' & 'A HIJACKING'

By Cooper, Rand Richards | Commonweal, August 16, 2013 | Go to article overview

Words & Deeds: 'HANNAH ARENDT' & 'A HIJACKING'


Cooper, Rand Richards, Commonweal


The German-Jewish political philosopher Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) lived a life emblematic of her era, a casualty of Hitler's rise to power who emigrated to the United States and became a prominent New York intellectual. But singular aspects of her curriculum vitae lent her a special gloss of fame--first as the student and lover of the philosopher Martin Heidegger, and second as the writer of a five-part New Yorker report on the 1961 Israeli trial of Adolf Eichmann. Those articles and her subsequent book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, ignited an incendiary controversy among Jewish intellectuals and other observers who accused Arendt of downplaying Eichmann's crimes while showing insufficient sympathy for his victims. Residual echoes of that argument make her an object of enduring interest, as does the landmark concept she contributed to the world's moral lexicon: "the banality of evil."

It's difficult to imagine a director better equipped to handle such a life than Margaretha von Trotta. Born in Berlin during World War II, von Trotta has repeatedly focused her work on the political and intellectual efforts of women in a world dominated by men, including Rosenstrasse (2003), which chronicled the wartime struggle of German women married to Jewish husbands. Hannah Arendt is the final installment of the director's trilogy of feminist historical biopics--all with Barbara Sukowa in the lead roles--beginning with Rosa Luxemburg (1986) and continuing with Vision, a 2009 study of Hildegaard of Bingen, the twelfth-century Benedictine nun renowned for her polymath aptitudes in science, music, medicine, and philosophy.

Hannah Arendt offers a nostalgic immersion in the close-knit world of postwar New York intellectuals, a romance of the combative jeu d'esprit and the sometimes antagonistic intimacy that united such diverse figures as Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer), with whom Arendt taught at Bard College, and Hans Jonas (Ulrich Noethen), her fellow German Jew who, like her, studied with Heidegger--and who, unlike her, bitterly renounced him for his Nazi enthusiasms. The film ably recapitulates the furor Arendt excited by insisting, in her reports from the trial in Israel, on three points: first, that Eichmann was not the kind of monster one might have expected but rather something new, a functionary whose evil was bureaucratic in nature; second, that the trial itself, insofar as it purported to scrutinize and judge one individual's actions, was a travesty; and third, that during the Holocaust Jews collaborated in varying degrees with Nazis like Eichmann, worsening their collective fate. It was for these assertions, and for a certain intellectual hauteur with which she made them, that even such close friends as Hans Jonas eventually repudiated her.

Not much happens in Hannah Arendt other than the Eichmann trial, which von Trotta awkwardly weaves in using film footage of the event from TV and newsreels, and viewers may justly wonder whether Arendt's actual lived life makes much sense as a dramatic subject. How to dramatize the life of an intellectual and writer? "Thinking is a lonely business," Heidegger (Klaus Pohl) intones to the young Arendt; and it's a highly uncinematic one too. Sukova struggles mightily to convey Arendt's mix of thrusting forensic swordsmanship, lively intellect, and superior ironic tone, and succeeds in winning from us a measure of sympathy. Shunned by a dying lifelong friend who accuses her of betraying the Jewish cause, and specifically of feeling no love for the Jewish people, Arendt can only stammer out an argument about the personal nature of human affection. "Why should I love the Jews?" she asks as the dying friend literally turns his back. "I love my friends--this is the only kind of love I am capable of."

Such moving moments notwithstanding, the film is remarkably static, content to chronicle these events rather than explore and dramatize them. I find it hard to know what the intended audience is. …

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