Movie mavens may have to come up with a new genre to classify “Hannah Arendt.”
It is an action film, as New York Times critic A.O. Scott suggests, but one in which the protagonists fight with ideas, theories and interpretations on a battle field where a questionable hypothesis can turn lifelong friends into bitter enemies.
Hannah Arendt was born in 1906 in Hanover, the precocious daughter of a German-Jewish family. She barely escaped the Holocaust, arriving in America, via a French detention camp, in 1941.
Here she built on her work as a political theorist and philosopher, producing among other influential works, “The Origin of Totalitarianism” and “The Human Condition.”
She might have continued her life as an intellectual and teacher, respected in her professional circles but unknown to the general public, save for the confluence of events in distant parts of the world.
In 1961, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion ordered Mossad agents to kidnap former SS Lt. Col. Adolf Eichmann from his hiding place in Argentina to face trial in an Israeli court for crimes against humanity and the Jewish people.
To cover the momentous trial, William Shawn, the legendary editor of The New Yorker magazine, decided to send Arendt, rather than a seasoned journalist, to Jerusalem.
It was a fateful decision, which changed the life of Arendt forever. More importantly, Shawn’s gamble largely shaped how future generations would view Eichmann and his compatriots who transformed Hitler’s fantasies of the master race into the industrialized extermination of six million Jews.
The movie, and the brilliant performance by German actress Barbara Sukowa in the title role, is likely not only to reawaken interest in the Holocaust -- as did “Schindler’s List” – but also renew debate on the roles of both perpetrators and victims.
Director Margarethe von Trotta, who has dealt previously with strong and complex Jewish women (“Rosa Luxemburg”) and the Nazi era (“Rosenstrasse”) faced a particularly daunting task in trying to portray the act of thinking – long and hard – in visual terms.
So the footage is interspersed with Sukowa/Arendt silently chain smoking (cigarette supplies by the car load must have made quite a dent in the film’s budget), pacing back and forth, sitting at a typewriter or lying on a sofa and staring at the ceiling.
The results of Arendt’s arduous thinking were explosive. Her series of articles in The New Yorker, expanded in her book “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil,” triggered a storm of controversy.
Hate mail and even death threats inundated Arendt and editor Shawn and many of her closest friends broke with the author. At one point, the Anti-Defamation League reportedly urged rabbis to denounce the book in their High Holy Days sermons.
“Banality of evil” became an enduring catch phrase to describe Eichmann and his kind as obedient bureaucrats, who abdicated independent thinking and moral judgment to carry out the orders of their superiors.
But what truly aroused the Jewish community, and many of her old friends, was her belief that the leaders of the Jewish communities in Germany and Poland during the Holocaust were complicit in facilitating the mass deportations to concentration camps.
Granted, Judenrat members may have hoped to soften the Nazi decrees, or just save their own skins, by cooperating with the German occupiers. Arendt, however, went one step further, maintaining that without such Jewish complicity, though there would have been much chaos and misery, the number of victims would have been drastically reduced.
The implication that, in effect, the victims were partially responsible for their ultimate fate was more than even her oldest friends could accept.
In a heart-wrenching scene, Arendt flies to Israel and the bedside of the dying Kurt Blumenfeld, perhaps her closest companion since the days when both were members of a Zionist youth group in Germany.
Arendt tries to mollify and comfort her old friend, but in his last living gesture, he turns his back on her.
This dramatic encounter is exceeded only by a scene near the movie’s end, when Arendt, facing a class at The New School in Manhattan, mounts a long, passionate defense of her writings.
In effect summarizing her philosophy, she exhorts her students that every individual has the duty to think independently if the human race is to avoid future catastrophes on the level of the Holocaust.
She also tries to persuade her critics that in trying to understand the mentality of Nazi war criminals, she in no way means to exculpate or forgive them.
Not all of “Hannah Arendt” is about intellectual sparring or pensive brooding. According to the film, Arendt could also be an ardent woman, who was a loyal and loving wife to her husband, despite his occasional discreet outside affairs.
In once scene, Arendt and American novelist Mary McCarthy, one of her staunchest defenders, discuss philosophical points while engaged in a competitive game of pool.
In a flashback, we see Arendt as a young university student involved in a love affair with her professor, the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who became a Nazi party member in 1933.
Some critics of Arendt have detected in her a certain intellectual snobbishness and a typical European disdain for the mental capacity of the “lower classes,” which might have led her to put down Eichmann as a man incapable of thinking for himself.
Such a characterization of Arendt is confirmed, to some degree, by Sukowa, who steeped herself in Arendt’s life and writings, before portraying her in the film.
“Arendt did have a certain snobbishness, though in some of her writing she expressed more democratic attitudes,” Sukowa said in a phone conversation from her home in Brooklyn, where she lives with her husband, the American artist Robert Longo.
In other observations, Sukowa noted that, like many assimilated German Jews, “Arendt really never knew that she was Jewish,” until forced to confront her ethnicity by Hitler’s edicts in 1933.
In a sense, Arendt’s forceful intellect was both her strength and her weakness, shaping her view of the Eichmann trial “from the perspective of a distant and somewhat ironic observer,” Sukowa said. Perhaps as a result, Arendt could not imagine how hurtful her pronouncements on the banality of evil and the complicity of Jewish leadership were to Holocaust survivors and the families of victims.
After his conviction by an Israeli court, Eichmann was hanged on May 31, 1962, but the questions raised by his trial and Arendt’s reportage persist, and are perhaps timeless.
In Germany and other European countries where the film has opened, Arendt’s “Eichmann In Jerusalem” is now selling more copies than when the book initially came out in 1963, said Pam Katz, who co-wrote the screenplay with director von Trotta.
Katz is the Manhattan-born daughter of a secular German-Jewish family. now lives in Brooklyn, and like Arendt has had to examine her Jewish identity through the impetus of the Eichmann trial.
She admires Arendt as a person and as a penetrating political philosopher, and disagrees with charges that she failed to grasp the real Eichmann in her “banality of evil” assessment.
That view, held by a number of respected historians, proposes that the real Eichmann was a shrewd operator who consciously and aggressively supported the Final Solution, even when he had to go against the orders of superiors or impair the German war effort.
For instance Gabriel Bach, Israel’s senior prosecutor at the trial, recalled two years ago at a Loyola Law School conference that as Soviet armies neared Budapest in the final stages of World War II, SS Reichsfuehrer Heinrich Himmler ordered Eichmann, his subordinate, to halt the trains carrying Jews to death camps.
Eichmann ignored the orders and the trains kept running.
To Holocaust historian Christopher R. Browning, such defiance indicated that Eichmann was much more than an unthinking cog in the death machine.
“Arendt had the right concept [in the banality of evil], but in Eichmann she had the wrong person,” Browning told The Journal at the time. “Eichmann was a very ambitious ideologue, not a banal bureaucrat.”
Katz, however, has a different take. Eichmann had sworn an oath of loyalty to the Fuehrer, Katz said, and felt that Himmler’s orders had to be circumvented because he was betraying Hitler.
As the film’s Arendt says in addressing her students, Katz believes that her key message was “you must start thinking for yourself.”
The movie’s dialogue is alternately in German and English and the picture gains authenticity by frequently inserting clips from the actual trial. The production was financially supported, in part, by the Israel and Jerusalem film funds.
“Hannah Arendt” will open June 7 at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles, Playhouse 7 in Pasadena, and Town Center in Encino.
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