‘Hannah Arendt’ examines controversy around ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’ author

Barbara Sukowa stars in ‘Hannah Arendt,’ a historical drama about the German Jewish philosopher and author whose reporting on the Adolf Eichmann for The New Yorker unleashed a torrent of criticism. 

By Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

“The banality of evil” was a phrase coined by Hannah Arendt, a German Jewish philosopher and author, to describe the Nazis’ bureaucratic approach to unthinkable horrors. Arendt noted that evil, often, is not perpetrated by “monsters” but by unremarkable people who excuse themselves from responsibility by saying, “I was just following orders.” 

“Hannah Arendt” is a high-quality, skillfully made and well-acted historical drama that aims to take us inside the mind of the intellectual who offered this insight. The main focus of the film is the time period when Arendt, who had escaped to the United States in 1941, covered the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Israel in 1961. Her five-part series for the New Yorker magazine, “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” created a firestorm of criticism against her, accusing her of sympathizing with Eichmann and of “blaming the victims” for her comments that some Jewish leaders were too quick to cooperate with the Nazis. 

The photography, settings and acting are all admirable in “Hannah Arendt.” The dialogue is witty, the story intelligent and its ability to make the process of thinking visible on screen is remarkable. Given the film’s title, it should come as no surprise that the film takes a personal, intimate approach to its subject and is told from Arendt’s point of view. But the film makes every effort to let her critics speak, and the story is told in a thoughtful, balanced way. 

Yet the film has been to object of some controversy, much like Arendt herself, reviving some of the arguments of the time. 

Directed by Margarette von Trotta and primarily in English and German, “Hannah Arendt” won the Lola, the German version of the Oscar, for actress Barbara Sukowa and was selected for the Toronto Film Festival and the New York Jewish Film Festival. 

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Eichmann had escaped the Nuremberg trials but was snatched off the street in South America by Israeli agents and then brought to Israel to stand trial. At the time, Arendt (Sukowa) was a respected academic and writer in New York, with a comfortable, cocktail party-filled social life among fellow intellectuals. When she decides to cover the Eichmann trial for the New Yorker, her husband Heinrich (Axel Milberg) and her friends, author Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer) and Hans Jonas (Ulrich Noethen), try to persuade her not to go, worried that it will bring memories of her war experiences. But the assignment appeals to her ego and ambitions. She dismisses their concerns for the chance to see this figure of great evil face-to-face. 

No actor plays Eichmann. Instead the film uses archival footage of the trial, and particularly of Eichmann, who is enclosed in a glass booth for his own protection. At the trial, Eichmann offers the familiar, “I was only following orders” defense, despite his position as a high-ranking Nazi official. Instead of finding the monster she wanted to confront, Arendt sees Eichmann as “terrifyingly normal.” Eichmann’s obsession with order and his ordinary appearance spark Arendt’s philosophical thought processes. 

Publication of her article generates a heated response that takes the author by surprise. Arendt, a survivor of a French detention camp and a Zionist in her youth, is criticized for being unfeeling because of the academic tone of her article. She dismissed Eichmann as a “nobody” whose obsession with bureaucratic detail allowed him to send people to their deaths without thinking. Arendt is accused of sympathizing with Eichmann and of “blaming the victims,” for her criticism of Jewish leaders who complied with Nazi demands. Even members of Arendt’s inner circle turn against her.

Despite its subject matter, the film is surprisingly entertaining and emotionally involving. Much of the narrative focuses on Arendt’s life during this time, beautifully recreating the period and a world of sparkling, intellectual cocktail parties. But we also get periodic flashbacks to Arendt’s days as a student in Germany with her mentor and lover, philosopher Martin Heidegger (Klaus Pohl). What the film does not mention, but which students of history know, is that the much older Heidegger would join the Nazi Party.  

Archival footage of survivors testifying against Eichmann, describing what the Nazis did, may prove difficult for some audience members to watch. Footage of Eichmann is another matter. While Arendt describes Eichmann as an unthinking bureaucrat, actual footage of the trial shows a degree of smirking arrogance. The director’s choice of footage is telling but the film makes no direct comment on Arendt’s conclusions. It simply lets her speak and gives voice to those around her who disagreed, allowing the audience can draw its on conclusions. 

This approach also permits Arendt, through Sukowa’s brilliant acting, to give voice to complex thinking. In conversations with supporters and detractors, we hear both sides of the debate. Arendt makes her case that she did not think Eichmann was merely “following orders” but was an ideologue so committed to efficiently carrying out Hitler’s vision that he would do anything, including killing his own father, if he thought Hitler’s ideas had been betrayed. Letting Arendt present her own case also brings out the philosopher’s insights about the role that the Nazis’ efforts to cast Jews as non-human played in allowing Nazi adherents to unthinkingly do abhorrent things to fellow human beings. 

Agree or not, it is a fascinating discussion.