Decades after her death in 1975, German-born political philosopher Hannah Arendt remains a controversial figure in Jewish history. Lauded on the one hand for The Origins of Totalitarianism (published in 1951), and condemned on the other hand for Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (originally published as a 5-part series in The New Yorker magazine in 1965), Hannah Arendt is sometimes placed in that disreputable category "Self-Hating Jew." Does she belong there? Now you will have an opportunity to think about this question for yourself when Margarethe von Trotta's new BioPic Hannah Arendt arrives in Metro Chicago on Aug.16.
I have known this film was coming for a very long time. In August 2004, just before von Trotta's film Rosenstrasse was released in Chicago, I did a telephone interview with Rosenstrasse's screenwriter Pamela Katz. And a few weeks later I spoke with von Trotta face-to-face (when she came to Chicago as a guest of the Chicago International Film Festival). They both told me then that they had already started work on a Hannah Arendt BioPic. So it took them both many years of dedication to get it done, but it is finally here.
In the last line of my review of Rosenstrasse, I wrote this: "The painful facts of the Holocaust have caused many Jewish Americans to nurse feelings of victimization. Rosenstrasse is an opportunity to see shades of gray in many things we thought were black and white." That same conclusion also applies to Hannah Arendt, which tackles the greatest of moral quandaries head-on.
I saw Hannah Arendt for the first time at a critics screening in Manhattan on April 17. Then I saw it again on June 1, the night that von Trotta came to the Film Forum on Houston Street to do a post-screening Q&A. Then I saw it a third time at the Quad Cinema--a few blocks from the New School for Social Research--on July 12, so I could make running notes for you on my yellow legal pad. In the interim, I also read at least 5,000 pages either by Hannah Arendt (including Eichmann in Jerusalem and Men in Dark Times) or about Hannah Arendt (including Deborah Lipsadt's book The Eichmann Trial and two biographies). OK, so maybe I'm a glutton for punishment, but I did all this so I could faithfully report on what is actually in this film… and what is not.
And before I say more, let me just add this: the more I read, the more fascinated I became by the "Hannah Arendt phenomenon." One thing is for sure: if she had not been such an intelligent writer, Hannah Arendt would never have become such a provocative figure. I am not suggesting by this that all her answers were correct, I am only recognizing how hard she worked at trying to ask the right questions. And this is, in fact, exactly what von Trotta and Katz want us to take away from Hannah Arendt: not answers but questions. At the very end of their film, they show Hannah Arendt giving an extended lecture to a large audience and stating the theme-her life's work-as follows: "It is profoundly important to ask these questions!"
In the film itself, von Trotta and Katz focus tightly on the early 60s, with a few flashbacks to earlier times (all of which are very short). The action begins with a prologue: In the dark of night, Mossad agents kidnap Adolph Eichmann in Argentina. Then, as the opening credits rolls, we see "Hannah Arendt" (Barbara Sukowa) staring out of a Manhattan window, smoking a cigarette, utterly and profoundly alone.
There are many more scenes in this film of Hannah Arendt alone with her cigarette, and although the images are static, they are filled with uncanny energy. In the climactic lecture, von Trotta and Katz explain their meaning: "Since Socrates," Hannah Arendt tells her students, "thinking has been understood as the dialogue between I and me… Thinking is not about knowledge but about judgment."
In between, of course, we see Hannah Arendt covering the trial of Adolph Eichmann and then facing the consequences of her coverage after Eichmann has been executed.
She reads about Eichmann's abduction in the New York Times, and watches the news on television with her husband "Heinrich Blucher" (Axel Milberg) and her editorial assistant "Lotte Kohler" (Julia Jentsch). Then she contacts "Bill Shawn" (Nicholas Woodeson) at the New Yorker and makes her pitch. Shawn agrees to send her to Israel as a representative of the New Yorker, and even though Blucher urges her not to go, she heads off to Jerusalem to attend the trial anyway. (Note that rather than cast an actor to play Eichmann, Von Trotta uses actual footage for all the trial scenes.)
Once she returns from Jerusalem, she begins to write her article but finishing it takes several years. Huge boxes filled with transcripts and background materials clutter her Manhattan apartment while Hannah Arendt--and the world--await the verdict. Eichmann is found guilty, the appeals process begins, and then finally, finally, Eichmann is hanged and his ashes are scattered somewhere in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. Meanwhile Hannah Arendt lives her normal life as a wife (to Heinrich Blucher), a friend to many--most notably novelist "Mary McCarthy" (Janet McTeer)--and a teacher to even more.
All of this is beautifully done, giving us a deep appreciation for a full life well-lived. But I do have one complaint: I wish von Trotta and Katz had done more to locate Hannah Arendt in space and time. This is especially difficult in Hannah Arendt's case because she was extremely peripatetic. In addition to the New School for Social Research in New York, she taught at several different places during this period (including Wesleyan University and the University of Chicago). In fact it's quite likely that the climatic lecture is actually based on an event held while she was a Visiting Professor in the Committee on Social Thought (and therefore her lonely lunch was at the Quad Club which really is where she stayed whenever she was teaching in Chicago).
This becomes important cinematically because one might well wonder if she was running away or hiding out during scenes set in unnamed "rural places." But that was never the case. Hannah Arendt was never hiding out. She was always teaching. And as she became increasingly infamous after the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem, lecture invitations flooded in first from hosts across America and then from hosts through-out Europe.
Surely there was a subtle way to convey some of this information on screen? Maybe Hannah and Mary could have mourned the Kennedy assassination in a conversation that ending with Hannah saying: "I really wish I didn't have to fly to Chicago next week." With so many world-historical things happening between 1961 and 1965, I think the film would have been stronger if space/time markers had somehow been incorporated into the flow. Since the voluminous Arendt/McCarthy correspondence was published quite a while ago, we know they really did discuss all of these events in real time as they occurred.
But in the end, Hannah Arendt succeeds in showing a woman who dedicated her life to the act of thinking. Why? As she says at the end of her lecture: "My hope is that thinking gives people strength when the chips are down."
Hannah Arendt opens locally at the newly restored Landmark Theatre at Renaissance Center in Highland Park on Friday, Aug 16.
Tzivi's Addendum: Even though all the principal players are long gone, there are at least two ongoing debates about the life of Hannah Arendt. One of these debates concerns her relationship with German philosopher Martin Heidigger (a man who was a prominent supporter of the Nazi cause in the early 1930s). This relationship is addressed-tangentially-in the von Trotta/Katz BioPic. The second debate concerns her relationship with Varian Fry (a man who rescued many great artists and intellectuals from the Nazis during the early days of World War II). This relationship is not addressed-at all-in the von Trotta/Katz BioPic .
For my thoughts on Hannah Arendt's relationship with Heidigger, read my blog post on Martin Heidigger.
For my thoughts on Hannah Arendt's relationship with Fry, read my blog post on Varian Fry.
Photo credits: Véronique Kolber/Zeitgeist Films