'Hannah Arendt' a Serious Biopic

By Paris, Barry | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), July 26, 2013 | Go to article overview

'Hannah Arendt' a Serious Biopic


Paris, Barry, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


How do you make a film about a great thinker? Thinking is not the most kinetic or photogenic activity. Hannah Arendt does a lot of it in the film that bears her name.

She was one of the greatest political theorist-philosophers of the 20th century, dispensing wisdom before, during and after publication of her landmark study, "The Origins of Totalitarianism" (1951). A German Jewish refugee from Naziism, Arendt and her husband, Heinrich Blucher, had long been living in comfortable academic exile in New York at the time of the stunning incident that opens the movie:

Adolf Eichmann -- the man in charge of implementing the Nazis' pan-European transportation system for Jews murdered in the Holocaust -- had escaped detention at the end of the war and, with the aid of a Vatican-obtained passport, made his way to Argentina. He is now, in 1960, located and kidnapped outside Buenos Aires by the Mossad and whisked off to Israel to face justice.

Arendt (Barbara Sukowa), fascinated as well as repulsed, convinces The New Yorker to let her cover the war crimes trial. She needs to see him at close range. But the result would be much more than courtroom coverage; it will be a groundbreaking insight into the nature of evil.

"Blood is a very special juice," snarls Mephisto in Goethe's "Faust." But Eichmann is no Mephistopheles. The master of genocidal logistics wasn't what she thought he'd be.

"Evil is supposed to be something demonic," Arendt would conclude in the five-part series later turned into a book. "Its incarnation is Satan. But in the case of Eichmann, I could find no such trace of Satanic 'greatness.' " Eichmann was not a monster, nor even particularly anti-Semitic. "He was simply unable to think. Sheer thoughtlessness -- not to be confused with stupidity -- predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of the 20th century."

A nobody, a high school dropout, a cog in the wheel, a mindless bureaucrat, Eichmann was "only following orders." He feels no guilt. He is proud of his obedience (not to mention his efficiency). He just obeyed the law. If, instead of "Thou shalt not kill," the law said, "Thou shalt kill," -- it wasn't his fault. "I never exterminated anyone!" he says -- not personally. And he believes it.

Arendt's resulting theory of "the banality of evil" held that the worst evils come from not thinking for oneself: "the huge difference between the unspeakable horror of the deeds and the mediocrity of the man."

That infuriated many as a "defense" of Eichmann. Even more controversial was her view that Jewish leaders themselves contributed to the magnitude of the Holocaust by their cooperation with the authorities through the Judenrate, or "Jewish Councils," acting as liaisons between the Nazis and the caged-in ghettos, to run basic services, provide Jewish slave labor ("Arbeit macht frei"), and round up Jews for "resettlement in the East" -- the euphemism for deportation to death camps. …

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