These days America’s political, academic, and pundit classes, along with special-interest citizen groups, seem content to paint by numbers, rendering every issue in flat black and white. But reality is dangerously recalcitrant, unreeling in many more than 50 shades of gray. Ironclad partisanship and political correctness guarantee dumbing-down. We face a disturbing refusal to deal with complexity on any front, but especially on hot-button issues that demand gutsy ratiocination. Facts don’t count in a climate of faux-philosophy and anti-reason. Margarethe von Trotta’s powerful film about German-Jewish scholar Hannah Arendt is acid in the face of this monumentally destructive bent in our national discourse.
Determinedly anti-melodramatic, von Trotta’s biopic chronicles the consequences of a courageous scholar’s maverick take on an historical horror that seemed, not long after WWII, obvious and inarguable: psychopathic monsters had systematically murdered millions of blameless victims. So when The New Yorker published Hannah Arendt’s “blasphemous” report (later a book) on the Adolph Eichmann trial in Israel, her nuanced, deep reading of Eichmann’s character plus suggestions of Jewish culpability loosed a firestorm among academics, free-range intellectuals, concentration-camp survivors, Israeli nationalists, et al.
As directed by von Trotta and toughly personified by longtime cinematic collaborator Barbara Sukowa, Hannah Arendt comes off as a bona fide superhero who thinks her way to hardest truth, no matter the cost—in friendship, academic appointments, her sinecure in the intellectual establishment. This is an authentic action film, for audiences capable of imagining the mind in fearless motion, doggedly pursuing and defeating comfortable lies and rationalizations.
First long sequence in the movie documents—at some length—a woman lying on a couch, smoking; the camera follows her to the window, where Arendt continues her contemplation. We return to those postures more than once in this film. We are invited to register what it looks like to be still, to focus, to wrestle with thought—the antithesis of frenetic device-driven movie “detectives,” afflicted more often than not with existential ADD.
Sukowa’s Arendt sometimes resembles a small, determined pug, given to chewing on an idea until it surrenders its pith. She and her smart set of Manhattan friends—most notably pal Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer, delightfully acerbic)—smoke, sip cocktails, and argue way into the night. The conversational gambits are wonderfully full of meat, and the fights can get hot—but this community of peers absorbs disagreement, reconstitutes fundamental affection and respect, and looks forward to the next exuberant soiree. A great deal of the film is given over to talking; such a pleasure to listen in on the delicious dialectic of argument among civilized intelligentsia.
The respected author of The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) has little trouble convincing William Shawn (Nicholas Woodeson), editor of The New Yorker, to sponsor her trip to Israel to report on the (probably illegal) trial of Eichmann, kidnapped out of South America by the Mossad. Watching—in a press room—the black-and-white footage of one of the orchestrators of the Final Solution, Arendt doesn’t see a psychopathic ideologue or a larger-than-life fiend. Seated in his glass cage is a bespectacled, balding bureaucrat, a nobody incapable of thinking for himself, a characterless creature embodying the “banality of evil.” (Some of the prosecutor’s questions are just as bureaucratically banal—Beckett would have shaped the exchanges into blackly funny theater—causing Arendt to burst into laughter, genuine and sacrilegious.) She mulls (often on that aforementioned couch), pores through trial transcripts, reality-checks first drafts with her devoted secretary (Julia Jentsch, luminous star of Sophie Scholl). Then she publishes what she thinks is truth—and is essentially sent to Coventry for her pains.
Who wanted to hear, barely two decades after WWII, that the incomprehensible evil committed by Hitler and his henchmen was rooted in ant minds and flow charts? If the Holocaust was genocide on the grand scale, shouldn’t its perpetrators be myth-sized monsters, Wagnerian gods from the Germanic id? Didn’t it diminish the suffering of the victims if their murders came at the hands of company men in gray-flannel uniforms? And who would be cruel enough to suggest Jewish complicity in their own genocide?
Arendt isn’t swayed by gut-level approaches to “placing” the Holocaust, the way the majority makes sense of a reality too terrible to bear. Her refusal to censor or dumb down her “briefing for a descent into hell” is painted as arrogant and unfeeling, easy potshots against smart people. Her oldest and dearest friend turns away from her on his deathbed. Writing in Partisan Review, Amazonian McCarthy cuts up her friend’s critics with a vengeance. The administrators of the New School, where Arendt teaches, quick-change from fawning over their resident star to witch-hunting the “Nazi apologist” out of her classroom. On one morning walk, she finds her way blocked by sinister Israeli suits, who tower over the diminutive writer to accuse her of besmirching the new Jewish nation.
In a Hollywood film, all these slings and arrows would occasion much breast-beating and buckets of tears and regrets—thereby earning an easy Oscar. In contrast, von Trotta’s heroine never wavers. She treads the choppy waters of her “crucifixion,” as though all that was an afterthought, incidental to the larger issues she continues to subject to her avidly critical mind. In flashback, we see a very young, starstruck Hannah coming under the tutelage of preeminent German philosopher Martin Heidegger (Klaus Pohl), whose work laid the foundation for modern epistemological methods and thinking. Heidegger turned Nazi in 1933, never apologizing publicly, even after the war, for his choice. When Hannah, heartsick, meets her mentor (and onetime lover) in his old age and demands an explanation, he stands silent. Heidegger groomed his prize pupil’s ruthless ratiocination—and perhaps she also learned something from his refusal to own up to “the greatest stupidity of my life.”
As usual, von Trotta’s cinema engrosses in and of itself, the inobtrusive documentation of a singular heroine in crisis. But seeing this film also jars us into realizing how much damage the absence of critical thinking can wreak on a community, a society at large. Eichmann’s apologia for atrocity was that he was a cog in a machine, a normal, sane Everyman bereft of independent judgment. Brilliant Hannah Arendt is bullied by her community to renounce what she observes and concludes through the microscope of her mind—though her work comes to be hailed as bedrock thinking about modern concepts of societal evil. In 2013, when herd mentality rules, where are our Hannah Arendts?
Straight Shooting, July 7, 2013
Copyright © 2013 by Kathleen Murphy