"Philosophers can't meet deadlines," one editor says to another at The New Yorker, as the other assigns philosopher Hannah Arendt to covering the Adolf Eichmann trial in Jerusalem in 1961. "I was just following orders," Eichmann says at the trial before he is hanged for his distant but deeply deleterious Nazi war crimes. These are two sharp lines in a movie that is sliced through with them, the award-winning Hannah Arendt, shrewdly directed by Margarethe von Trotta (Vision, Rosa Luxemburg) and featuring an astonishing biopic performance by Barbara Sukowa.
I first heard about Hannah Arendt, I think, when I read Greil Marcus's book Lipstick Traces in the late 80s. I might have read about her before then, but don't remember it. Marcus was using her phrase "the banality of evil" to discuss some really horrible things that have happened in history just because people followed orders, refusing to be "persons." Like Dostoyevsky's image of the baby tossed up and stuck on the tip of a soldier's bayonette during wartime in The Brothers Karamazov, Marcus illustrated his time-map of senseless human cruelty by describing human face masks in Central America — enemies (victims) whose faces were carved from their heads and worn or put on posts by U.S.-backed military juntas.
Reading this while the arms for the Contras scandal played out, the passion and rage and damage of timeless punk (from Dada to the Sex Pistols) seemed quaint but still necessary. For sanity, to continue on in the face of oppression, daily ontological revolt against sadistic social and military "business as usual" is imperative. Nothing describes what compassionate people kick against more than what has itself become to many a banal phrase, "the banality of evil."
The origin of that phrase, as used by Arendt, can never really be considered a played out, conventional idea though. It was a revelation to Arendt as she watched the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann, who engineered the routes of trains to take millions to concentration camps, deciding from an office, behind the scenes and away from all the blood and dirt and starvation and terror, some who would live and many who would die. Arendt ruminated after reading stacks and stacks of the court transcripts, and couldn't help feeling that her impression in Jerusalem, watching the accountant-looking Eichmann twitch and flinch as if enduring an annoying government audit, was correct. This had nothing with him hating Jews, nothing at all to do with any sort of personal prejudice towards anyone. It was all as he himself said — the adherence of obedience he was raised with in Germany, and the fears of what might happen if one didn't go along with what everyone else was doing. This made Arendt's contemporaries fitfully livid and perfervidly antahonistic when it was published as a five-part article series in The New Yorker.
Hannah Arendt shows what Arendt's revelation cost her, a price I was never aware of until I saw the film. Before her essays were collected into the book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, she endured vicious mocking backlash from people who didn't appreciate certain aspects of her report involving the compliance of Jewish leaders with the Nazis. As Arendt and her husband were held in a French detention camp at the start of the allies participation in World War ll, she knew full well that family and friends can join in with social pressures to isolate and punish those who are deemed "useless" by the State. Maybe she took it for granted that people would understand that she, a Jew who had experienced the persecution first hand, would accept her findings on this. But couple this analysis of compliance with the enemy and the observation that Eichmann was guilty of an everyday evil most participate in — working in a system that breaks others down and makes them less than human, only in a period in which this was hastened to a humungous, horrible, soul-shattering extent — and it was fuel for reactionary fire.
This movie is excellent, and Sukowa's portrayal of Arendt's love for her awry, ornery, less-educated husband is shown and is as compelling as her professional work, and her sweet friendships with loyal comrades who help and protect her through the shit-storm. The performance of Klaus Pohl as Arendt's mentor Martin Heidegger is acutely convincing for anyone who has seen footage of the actual philosopher; and his presence here is timely and informative, considering some of the controversies going on in French philosophy right now.
Hannah Arendt disturbed me. It made me think about that requirement to make people "useless" before being rid of them — as millions were tagged with that description before they were roundly grouped and mostly eliminated. Someone who sees life as a black and white world, where evil is obvious (or maybe doesn't even exist at all), or thinks that whatever way the flow of humanity goes is somehow the imperative or even God's will (if they believe in one), may be pricked and displeased by these insights even now.
Arendt herself clung to liberal desires of social reform, still believing in "a people," that good changes can come for society by obeying rules from above and around (just the right rules). Somewhere between being a person and living as a people, we hope that the human remains, that we aren't individually (as a friend says in the film) "water dropped on a hot rock." Hannah Arendt shows the amount of love and courage it takes to stay alive and keep our souls.