In 1961, the noted German-American philosopher, Hannah Arendt, gets to report on the trial of the notorious Nazi war criminal, Adolf Eichmann. While observing the legal proceedings, the Holocaust survivor concludes that Eichmann was not a simple monster, but an ordinary man who had thoughtlessly buried his conscience through his obedience to the Nazi regime and its ideology. Arendt's expansion of this idea, presented in the articles for "New Yorker", would create the concept of "the banality of evil" that she thought even sucked in some Jewish leaders of the era into unwittingly participating in the Holocaust. The result is a bitter public controversy in which Arendt is accused of blaming the Holocaust's victims. Now that strong willed intellectual is forced to defend her daringly innovative ideas about moral complexity in a struggle that will exact a heavy personal cost. Written by
Kenneth Chisholm (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Western tradition mistakenly assumes that the greatest evils of mankind arise from selfishness. But in our century, evil has proven to be more radical than was previously thought. And we now know that the truest evil, the radical evil, has nothing to do with selfishness or any such understandable, sinful motives. Instead, it is based on the following phenomenon: making human beings superfluous as human beings. The entire concentration camp system was designed to convince the prisoners they were...
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Although I was not familiar with the name "Hannah Arendt," I was certainly familiar with the phrase "banality of evil" that Arendt coined. However, "banality of evil" is not the phrase she used. The full phrase is "the fearsome, word-and-thought-denying banality of evil." Because, unlike the claims of many accusers who didn't fully understand her, Arendt didn't see a simple bureaucrat in Eichmann during his 1960 trial in Israel. She saw a truly evil man who "spoke like a bureaucrat." Her point being that Eichmann did not speak or seem to think like a genocidal maniac yet he acted like one nevertheless. That is evil cloaked in the banal. This movie revolves around the years of Arendt's life, 1960 to 1963, when she was formulating these ideas and in that, I think the movie probably has it right.
All that said, and these are certainly ideas worth mulling over, this is a film for ideas and for philosophy buffs, not for film buffs. Why do I say this? Because this movie is slow, at least for American audiences. The beginning is confusing. We see a woman in New York but we don't know the date. She speaks German. We see a man get off of a bus heading to "Victoria" in the middle of nowhere. He is promptly kidnapped. We don't know when or where. Eventually, we learn the kidnapped man is Adolph Eichmann who is nabbed by the Mossad in Argentina in 1960. Much of the movie unfolds slowly. This is a film about thinking. It is not about doing much or feeling much. It is an intellectual film.
There's one semi-action scene in the film where a 1950s vehicle corners Arendt on the road where she is walking. Israeli secret agents pour out of the car and threaten Arendt, trying to prevent her from publishing her book about Eichmann. Based on someone knowledgeable, Professor Roger Berkowitz, academic director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities at Bard College in New York, it appears this scene was invented out of whole cloth to try to give the film at least some suspense. But that's not what this film is about.
It's about thinking and it's about the fearsome, word-and-thought-denying banality of evil and how Hannah Arendt was the first to identify this 20th-century pathology of the human psyche.
Thanks to the Camera Cinema Club in San Jose for showing this film.
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