The philosopher Martin Heidegger once warned a youthful and impressionable Hannah Arendt that “thinking is a lonely business.” German director Margarethe von Trotta’s recent biopic of Arendt, out now on DVD through Soda, confirms this claim whilst also exposing one that is all too easily taken for granted: that thinking is also a very important and complex business. Hannah Arendt (2012) manages to make a convincing cinematic drama out of its protagonist’s urge to engage with ideas in order to understand the world. Given the difficulty in translating philosophy into drama, it’s also understandable that it doesn’t provide an extensive account of Arendt’s philosophical oeuvre – how could it?
What it does bring however is a respectful account of her, the woman behind the brain, coupled with an introduction to her thought. In stark contrast to Arendt’s complex study of dehumanisation in totalitarian regimes, von Trotta’s film aims to humanise Arendt the academic. Occasionally described as an arrogant and self-hating Jew by her peers, the Arendt depicted here by Barbara Sukowa is a thick-skinned yet sensitive and deeply valued woman – a loyal friend with a commendable ability to forgive those close to her heart. By showing us the woman behind the brain, von Trotta enables us to contextualise Arendt’s thinking and her drive to understand life and its people, what she called “amor mundi”.
This tendency to personalise Arendt doesn’t belittle her intellectual achievements; instead, it offers us a much more personal take on her political theories, thereby rendering them more accessible. Von Trotta chooses to focus on the four years of Arendt’s coverage of the Adolf Eichmann trial for two very good reasons: she’s able to portray both the woman and a glimpse of her understanding of the dark times of 20th century Europe. Through fascinating archive footage of the trial and Eichmann himself, it also offers the viewers a physical representation of the mediocrity of a mass-murdering Nazi: the “banality of evil” in its very flesh. Writing in The New Yorker, Arendt was shocked that Eichmann was so “terribly and terrifyingly normal.”
Arendt’s reports for the magazine were compiled into a book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. While this sequence of von Trotta’s film does make for compelling viewing, there is a risk here of simplifying a complex and divisive theory which fits into a much broader and groundbreaking study of Europe’s darkest phase of recent history. Taking her cue from her previous work, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt shocked her contemporaries by claiming that it was too simplistic to attribute the Holocaust exclusively to the deed of Aryan anti-Semitic monsters. The reality was much more nuanced and complex, one which involved the participation and consent of an entire society in which the boundaries between perpetrators and victims were blurred.
Fundamental in understanding the scope of Arendt’s theory is this – the “banality of evil” is not a term coined to characterise an individual’s psychology, but rather a whole ideology based around the concept of total domination. The film, understandably reluctant to delve too much into theoretical thinking, trivialises this by portraying Eichmann as a mere dim-witted bureaucrat. Arendt never stated that Eichmann was stupid or passively following orders. Like millions of other perpetrators, he acted thoughtlessly and with conviction, not as a mechanical bureaucrat but as someone whose morality had been sedated and sacrificed for a higher sense of duty, as part of a mass movement that ruled every aspect of society – Nazism.
For all of Hannah Arendt’s shortcomings, von Trotta should be praised for tackling such a difficult subject so personally, giving us an insight into the shaping of Arendt’s theory by focusing on her human traits and passion for thinking and understanding. In a poignant speech in the final act, Sukowa’s Arendt reminds her students of the importance of thinking and asking questions as part of their duty to understand – the antithesis of Eichmann and co’s actions. At the very least, von Trotta succeeds in sparking a new lease of life into the work of one of the most important political thinkers of the 20th century.
Von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt is out now on DVD, courtesy of Soda Pictures. You can read our review of the film here.