Banality of Evil

The Importance of Being Hannah Arendt

Daphne Merkin on a brilliant new film presenting Hannah Arendt in the midst of the Eichmann trial and the 'banality of evil.'

Zeitgeist Films/Everett

I have never been sure what to make of the phrase “the banality of evil"—whether it is, in fact, a revelatory concept or a catchy but psychologically tone-deaf one-liner. “The mediocrity of evil” might have been truer to what Hannah Arendt was trying to get at in her utter incredulity about Adolf Eichmann’s lack of, well, charisma, but it lacks the contemptuous pizzazz of the actual wording. Then again, it was impossible to grow up in a Jewish-identified household in the early ’60s in America and be unaware of Arendt's famous—or was it notorious?—formulation, even if that was all you knew of the complex, dense, and not entirely readable account she wrote of the Eichmann trial.

Her report appeared first in five installments in February and March 1963 in The New Yorker, where it was eagerly (and, I would imagine, somewhat horrifiedly) devoured by people like my parents, though I was way too young to actually recall its impact other than as a vague impression of some kind of intellectual stir. My parents were both German Jews, like Arendt, although, very unlike Arendt, they were both religiously observant and ardently Zionist. (My uncle on my mother's side was in fact an assistant to Attorney General Gideon Hausner, who aroused Arendt’s disdain from the start.) In later years, I would hear about Arendt from William Jovanovich, her publisher and mine, who was very fond of Arendt—fond enough to fly her up to his summer home in La Malbaie, Canada. Bill's wife, Martha, also seemed to like Arendt, far more than she did Mary McCarthy, another summer guest, of whom she once observed to me: "She ate up all of the fresh raspberries from the garden, leaving none for Bill."

Arendt's reputation as a philosopher of high genius and even higher probity, which rested on writings such as The Origins of Totalitarianism, essays on political thought and her biography of Rahel Varnhagen, never quite recovered from the New Yorker publication or the book which followed in 1963, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. She quickly came under attack, particularly from American Jewish critics like Lionel Abel, Norman Podhoretz, and such once close friends as the philosopher Gershom Scholem, for her strangely, almost effusively dispassionate observations about Eichmann (including her admiration for the stoic way in which he went to his death, declining, as a good Gottgläubiger (disbeliever), to say prayers with a Protestant minister or to wear the black hood that was offered him before his hanging) and for her casting some of the blame for the satanic effectiveness of the Nazi genocide on the Jews themselves in the form of the Judenräte, the Nazi-appointed officials of the ghettos and other beleaguered Jewish communities. “How could the Jews through their own leaders cooperate in their own destruction?” and “Why did they go to their death like lambs to slaughter?” were rhetorical questions she posed almost as an aside a mere three pages into her essay, subtly setting the stage for a callous blame-the-victim line of inquiry, although she only fully took up the issue of what she termed Jewish “cooperation” a third of the way into a 300-page document. “Wherever Jews lived, there were recognized Jewish leaders, and this leadership, almost without exception, cooperated in one way or another, for one reason or another, with the Nazis. The whole truth was that if the Jewish people had really been unorganized and leaderless, there would have been chaos and plenty of misery but the total number of victims would hardly have been between four and a half and six million people.”

All these long-gone but still festering matters—Arendt herself, who died in 1975, professed to be unperturbed by the raging controversy, referring to it as "a tempest in a teapot"—are up again for reconsideration with the recent appearance of Margarethe von Trotta’s (Rosa Luxemburg, Rosenstrasse) extraordinary film, called, with pleasingly eponymous simplicity, Hannah Arendt. (Such is the media synchronicity of the times we live in that Penguin, which issued a 2006 paperback version of the Eichmann book with a clumsily written and overtly apologist introduction by the estranged Zionist Amos Elon, has managed to rush out copies with incongruous “See the Major Motion Picture HANNAH ARENDT” stickers affixed to them.)

What must be said right off is that von Trotta’s biopic, whatever its shortcomings (which for me have mainly to do with its somewhat idealizing approach to Arendt) and whatever details it gets wrong (almost everything to do with the portrait of The New Yorker), has managed to make thrilling cinematic drama out of its protagonist’s lifelong engagement with ideas. Rarely have I seen a film in which the image of a woman, thinking, steadily holds the camera the way it does here—whether she is thinking and smoking, thinking and staring into space, thinking and cutting up vegetables, thinking and conversing, or thinking and tapping typewriter keys—without producing restlessness in the viewer. (In a piece by Mary McCarthy called “Saying Goodbye to Hannah” that appeared in The New York Review of Books after Arendt’s death, McCarthy lovingly recalls: “Hannah is the only person I have ever watched think. She lay motionless on a sofa or a day bed, arms folded behind her head, eyes shut but occasionally opening to stare upward. This lasted—I don’t know—from ten minutes to half an hour. Everyone tiptoed past if we had to come into the room in which she lay oblivious.”)

Thanks to a mostly first-rate script by von Trotta and co-writer Pamela Katz, superb direction (von Trotta is particularly gifted at giving vivid life to interior spaces and how people inhabit them), and a virtuoso performance by Barbara Sukowa as Arendt, we experience the evolution of Arendt’s theories about the Eichmann trial as they occurred in sparkling and sometimes heated discussions with her doting husband, Heinrich Blücher (persuasively acted by Axel Milberg), and with friends such as McCarthy (a stylish performance by Janet McTeer), the German-Jewish philosopher Hans Jonas (Ulrich Noethen), and the Zionist activist Kurt Blumenfeld (Michael Degen). I might only add that, given this triumph of characterization, it seems a slight pity to me that, in her effort to humanize Arendt—or, perhaps, to feature the Woman behind the Brain—von Trotta found it necessary to depict Arendt as so relentlessly love-struck a wife. It may even have been true that Arendt felt this way about Blücher, whom she nicknamed Stups (he in return called her Klaps), despite his infidelities—certainly her letters to him point to an unusually impassioned union (“Stups, for the love of God, you are my four walls”)—but I found it wearying.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Hannah Arendt is the extensive amount of on-screen time von Trotta has decided to devote to archival material from the Eichmann trial and the artful use she has made of it. With the fidgety, grimacing, bespectacled figure of the former Nazi higher-up at its center, seated inside a glass booth, the black-and-white courtroom footage seamlessly unfolds almost as a film within a film, capturing our attention as much as it did Arendt’s. (Who, as it turns out, followed large parts of the trial in the pressroom, so as to be able to smoke.)

As we watch the colorless Eichmann (although he was capable, as Arendt noted, of sudden flights of fancy—comparing himself under questioning to a steak being grilled and describing the futility of resistance to the Nazi enterprise as akin to “a drop on a hot stone that evaporates without purpose or success”) dodge responsibility for being anything other than a bureaucratic functionary following orders, it is as though we have been transported back more than half a century and are being asked to draw our own conclusions along with Arendt.

I, for one, was less struck by Eichmann’s bloodlessness and inability to think, which so disturbed Arendt, than by his infrequent but all the same quite unexpected attempts at self-reflection, howsoever limited. Who would have thought him capable, for instance, when questioned about the conflict between duty and conscience, of referring to a “state of being split, where one could flee from one side to the other?” Listening to him, I wondered for a moment what kind of narrative Arendt would have produced had she been more aware of her own personal conflicts (her status as a deracinated Jew, for one, and unwilling refugee, for another) and less in thrall to her German intellectual heritage, one which emphasized a ruthless and ultimately dangerous purity of thought as epitomized by her teacher and lover, the philosopher Martin Heidegger? Needless to say, Arendt had nothing but scorn for psychoanalysis.

Von Trotta’s less deft touches have mostly to do with her depictions of The New Yorker and its ambience. Nicholas Woodeson’s William Shawn seems more like a fast-talking deli owner than the painfully shy, recessive editor I remember from my days of working at the magazine’s typing pool, and his office looks more like a pawnshop than is warranted. I can’t figure out, either, whom the snarky character of Frances is based on, or what her role is supposed to be; I would have pegged her for an assistant, except that in between snapping out lines like “philosophers don’t make deadlines” in an unplaceable accent, she allows Shawn to make his own phone calls.

But then again, one might ask, who has ever gotten The New Yorker right on film? Perhaps one day someone will. Meanwhile, we have a movie that reminds us of a time before tweeting and blogging, one in which the old-fashioned life of the mind—the life of “significant contention,” as the critic Diana Trilling once called it—has been given a fresh and illuminating purview.