BY READTHESPIRIT EDITOR DAVID CRUMM
If you care about peacemaking and global justice, then you must be fascinated to find the fury rising once again around Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. The impassioned voices either defending or denouncing Arendt are, once again, nearly as impassioned as when The New Yorker magazine first published her five-part series as “A Reporter at Large” in 1963. Then, Viking collected the series into a book. Now published by Penguin, hundreds of thousands of copies have been sold.
A new film defending Arendt and casting her as a brilliant crusader—as a new kind of sophisticated, feminist thinker for a new era in world history—is making the rounds, now in a DVD edition by Zeitgeist. It’s called simply Hannah Arendt. The convergence of the 50th anniversary of her landmark, incendiary work of news-analysis—and this very compelling new film about her life—now places Arendt squarely in the cross hairs of people who were not even alive during the Holocaust. In reviewing this new film, I must point out that, at age 58, I was not alive during World War II, either.
These days, most Americans don’t even know her name. In preparing to review this film, I asked a number of well-read writers what they thought of Hannah Arendt and, generally, the response was: “Oh, the Eichmann writer.” While her book flooded the world, few people living today have actually read it. I’m one of her readers, because I make a brief reference to Arendt’s classic phrase, “the banality of evil,” in my own book, Our Lent: Things We Carry. I briefly discuss her argument in my own chapter on Pontius Pilate trying to wash his hands after condemning Jesus.
4 Things to Understand about Hannah Arendt
She came of age in a circle of brilliant thinkers: Born to a Jewish family in Germany in 1906, Arendt’s life is a Zelig-like tale of connections with a wealth of towering intellectual figures emerging in that era before World War II. She became a philosopher and political theorist in a long series of books, dominated by Eichmann in Jerusalem. Until her death in 1975, her life revolved around the issues raised in that 1963 work. Her circle of friends is crucial to understanding the explosive worldwide debate that stormed—and continues to storm—around her work. Critics later argued that some of her friends may have been dark collaborators in her work; some of her friends came to her vigorous defense; some of her friends were transformed into relentless enemies by her work.
In the film: Of course, Margarette von Trotta’s film is a vigorous defense of Arendt’s life and work. The film does explore many of these complex friendships, generally depicting each relationship in ways that are sympathetic to Arendt’s memory. If you are reading this review and, already, you are realizing that this era of history is way beyond your own background—then you definitely will want to explore a bit of Arendt’s Wikipedia page before seeing the movie.
She was touched by the Holocaust: She fled the Nazis twice and was imprisoned for a time in a camp, although she was able to flee to America thanks to special visa. To this day, the question is hotly debated: How well did she understand the nature of the Shoah?
In the film: These two escapes are mentioned at several points in the film, but are not well explained for newcomers to this story. Again, read a bit of background on Arendt before you see it.
She went to Jerusalem to “cover” the trial of Adolf Eichmann for The New Yorker magazine: She attended some, but not all, of Eichmann’s trial. She was stunned by her first encounter with this major architect of the Holocaust (who had fled to Argentina, but was kidnapped by Israeli forces and was put on trial in Jerusalem). Watching him speak from his glass-walled corner of the courtroom, Arendt formulated her most important conclusion: In the 20th century industrial age, vast crimes against humanity could be organized into a series of actions fit for bureaucrats to maintain as a matter of ordinary business. Her “banality of evil” phrase was not excusing or defending Eichmann, but was pointing at a far deeper truth: In a technologically advanced world, huge crimes could be conceived and broken down into steps fit for bureaucrats. This remains her most important insight—and the point I briefly discuss in my own book.
In the film: We are given the impression that Arendt covered nearly all of the trial in person, either in the courtroom or in the journalists’ newsroom via closed-circuit TV into the courtroom. We also are shown how extensively she studied transcripts and other records. The film does not deal with the more recent criticism by historians that her attendance at the trial was just a handful of days she spent sampling the real action in the courtroom. In the film, she seems steeped in all of the trial records.
She seemed to be attacking the courage of the Jewish people, collectively: It is almost impossible to imagine the impact of her reporting on Jewish survivors little more than a decade after the Holocaust’s end—and on Israelis in a tiny, besieged nation still trying to establish itself. A key section in her reporting criticized officials in European Jewish councils during the Holocaust for cooperating with Nazi transports to the death camps. To this day, scholars continue to study this question and to rebuke Arendt’s implication that these Jewish leaders did not do enough to try to save their people.
In the film: This is one of the strong points in the movie. We come away from the film, on balance, thinking that Arendt was indeed far too arrogant in the section of her reporting that seemed to attack Jewish leaders during the Holocaust. In a number of scenes, we see how—by sheer force of her considerable personality—she convinced The New Yorker editors to publish that incendiary section (about 10 pages out of 300 pages). In the film, Arendt is allowed to defend herself on this point but we do come away regarding this point as part of the tragedy of her life. She truly was out of her depth in making some of these charges and she paid for that over-reaching in her book with death threats and criticism that haunted her final decade.
OUR RECOMMENDATION: If you care about the course of peacemaking and global justice, since World War II, you must know something about Hannah Arendt. This film is absolutely compelling: For a docu-drama about a sophisticated intellectual, you certainly won’t want to stir until it’s over. Critics who have slammed this film—and there are some—see it as a shameful defense of a woman they still regard as an evil figure on the world stage. Critics who praise this film—and I am among them—see it as a fascinating cinematic introduction into the most important point Arendt was trying to make: that the nature of evil in the world is changing dramatically in our modern era. In her view, we may need to look for the bureaucrats in ordinary-looking offices to unearth the true monsters in this new age.
As The Paris Review pointed out earlier this year, this point should not be missed or overshadowed in the midst of the related controversies about Arendt. Robert Lowell termed her portrayal of Eichmann a “masterpiece,” and Bruno Bettelheim said it was the best protection against “dehumanizing totalitarianism.”
The New York Times film critic A.O. Scott made the same point in his review, which praises the film for raising awareness of her life: “We may need her example more than ever. It’s probably too much to hope that Ms. von Trotta and her star, Barbara Sukowa, will do for Arendt what Nora Ephron and Meryl Streep did for Julia Child, but surely a fellow can dream.”
I urge you to see this film yourself; I urge you to see it with friends; I urge you to acquaint yourself with the life and work of Hannah Arendt. You will be a better peacemaker for the effort.
CARE TO READ MORE?
The New York Times Review of Books just published two commentaries on Hannah Arendt and Eichmann in Jerusalem.
Watch filmmaker Claude Lanzmann: First, if you have read this far in the review, then you will want to know that Lanzmann’s most famous documentary on the Holocaust is now on sale for American viewers in Blu-ray as: Shoah (Criterion Collection). If you follow Holocaust studies, then you know his epic film has been hard to find for American viewing for many years. It’s expensive, but—again, if you are fascinated by this era or your work involves reflecting on the Holocaust for students or for readers—buy a copy of the Criterion Collection set right now. It may go out of print; other Criterion titles have. Then, continue to watch for news on Lanzmann, because he already is showing his latest production, The Last of the Unjust, a documentary that focuses on Theresienstadt and already is being described as a rebuke of Hannah Arendt.