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Hannah Arendt (2012)
Few movies based on historical figures manage to combine a good sense of character with a first-rate story. Hannah Arendt is an exception. It is directed by Margarethe von Trotta, who had focused on such diverse (and strong) women of history as the nun and mystic Hildegard von Bingen and the leftist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg. Her latest film is the story of one key episode in the life of Hannah Arendt, the German-American philosopher and political theorist. But Hannah Arendt transcends the bounds of "feminist" filmmaking. It is a work that puts before the viewer key questions about the nature of evil, about acceptance of authority, and about personal responsibility. At the same time it is a fine piece of storytelling.
Arendt was a German Jew who had studied under the noted philosopher Martin Heidegger, and who had a romantic relationship with him that soured when the Nazis came to power and Heidegger publicly supported them. She soon left Germany for France but in 1940 was imprisoned by the Vichy regime in the detention camp in Gurs. Escaping after a few weeks imprisonment, she fled with her husband to the U.S. Throughout and after the war she was active in Jewish causes, including the Zionist movement. In the 1950s she began a career of writing and teaching, which included appointments at such universities as Princeton, Yale and the University of Chicago. She became noted for two popular books, The Origins of Totalitarianism and The Human Condition.
The film deals with one short period in her life, Arendt's reporting on the 1961 Adolf Eichmann trial in Jerusalem for the New Yorker magazine, coverage she later turned into a book. In here account she spoke of "the banality of evil," evil done without thinking, because people were "following orders." Arendt's suggestion was that Eichmann was evil not so much because he was a monster, but because he was a mindless bureaucrat. Although she did not disagree with the guilty verdict or Eichmann's hanging, she was critical of the conduct of the trial. Even more controversial was her submission that some Jewish leaders contributed to the magnitude of the Holocaust by their complicity with the authorities. While she recognized the futility of open rebellion, she suggested that less cooperation would at least have saved more lives. Such suggestions, especially coming from a prominent Jew, provoked a firestorm of criticism, and threatened both Arendt's career and lifelong friendships. The movie becomes not just about a single life, but about freedom of expression - the sometimes harsh clash between ideas and fixed opinions - and the great personal costs this can involve.
Still, a movie that focuses so much on one individual requires a superb piece of acting. Director von Trotta gets this from Barbara Sukowa, who played both Hildegard and Rosa Luxemburg in her earlier films. Sukowa brings to the screen not only a supremely intelligent woman, but a very principled and determined one. At the same time she portrays a woman who can be tender and compassionate, and understanding even of her detractors. To blend such widely divergent qualities is no easy task, but Sukowa succeeds in anchoring them securely in the character she plays. Axel Milberg as Heinrich Blücher, Arendt's husband, more reserved, but supportive and protective, is equally credible. Another solid performance comes from Janet McTeer as the political activist, author, and Hannah's steadfast friend, Mary McCarthy. Included also among her inner circle was her secretary, Lotte, played very sympathetically and competently by Julia Jentsch. Two longtime Jewish friends, one in New York, Hans Jonas, and another in Jerusalem (also her former teacher), Kurt Blumenfeld, are very well represented by Ulrich Noethen and Michael Degen. And a very unrepentant and unapologetic Martin Heidegger is played by Klaus Pohl.
In addition to good acting a film that deals with the realm of ideas also requires a finely tuned screenplay and talented direction so that it does not just show pictures of "talking heads." Director von Trotta cooperated with Pam Katz on the script, and what they produced is obviously a labor of love. The situation of ideas against the background of such horrific concrete acts as genocide, and in particular against the showpiece trial of Eichmann, brings them into contact with the very real world. That reality is heightened by the decision not to dramatize Eichmann himself, but to show the genuine article as he appears in the TV footage of the trial. There is such genuine horror there, and yet such obvious banality, as to give Arendt's musings real weight.
In the end the film obliges the viewer to confront the questions Arendt is trying to raise. Are the roots of evil obvious or can they be far more subtle? Where does responsibility begin, and who in a society must take responsibility for the acts of the whole body? The film does not preach, but it certainly raises vital questions. A real gem! Hannah Arendt premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 11, 2012. The movie will go into general release on January 17, 2013.
The film "Hannah Arendt" depicts an intriguing and contradictory
intellectual but avoids examining the political core of the famous
controversy it recounts. Arendt stirred a furor with her 1963 writings
on the Israeli government's trial in Jerusalem of the Nazi Adolf
Eichmann. She characterized Eichmann, who had organized the transport
of European Jews to the death camps, as a banal bureaucrat rather than
a singular monster. She wrote that European Jewish leaders, too, were
responsible, by administering submission to the Nazis when even futile
resistance and chaos might have allowed more Jews to survive. The
public attacks on Arendt are shown. She was pilloried, particularly by
Jewish intellectuals, as an unfeeling Nazi sympathizer and self-hating
Jew. The New School's move to fire her is also enacted.
But the film, which shows Arendt as shocked to learn that she has hurt the feelings of many Jews, including long-time friends, does not reveal that she had broken with the Zionist leaders in 1942 when they called for a Jewish state rather than the bi-national Palestine she supported. The Zionists opposed measures to rescue Jews from the Nazis other than those that herded them to Palestine. They claimed, however, that their takeover of Palestine was all about saving Jews from a unique evil -- a claim unchallenged by most liberals as well as the Stalinist left. Arendt's analysis hit the Zionists' guilty conscience and undermined the rationale for their nationalist project. The film ignores these crucial political elements, and presents Arendt's strong defender and friend only as novelist "Mary" without disclosing that Mary McCarthy was an anti-Stalinist and anti-Zionist who called Zionism the "Jewish final solution."
Director Margarethe von Trotta's failure to explore this relevant history leaves her film interesting but superficial when it could have been brave and timely. Arendt's famous topic, thoughtless compliance with evildoers in power, needs our attention today more than ever. Fifty years after the "Banality of Evil" controversy, U.S. liberals and progressives are blindly uncritical of a leader who spies on millions and remotely executes foreigners and citizens in the name of national security. A militarily mighty Zionist state is still free to massacre innocents, shielded by this unquestioned U.S. power and the old sacred cow that Israel is the only safe haven for Jews. Arendt might have had some juicy comments about the "banality of filmmaking."
Margarethe von Trotta's Hannah Arendt is a film about thinking.
Moreover, it's in favour of it. It so values thinking that it offers
some elegant speeches and debate, sans computer generated spectaculars.
Barbara Sukowa portrays the German Jewish philosopher during the period she covered the Adolf Eichmann trial in Israel for The New Yorker. The film confronts the controversy Arendt raised when (i) she redefined Eichmann not as a monster but as an ordinary nobody, exemplifying "the banality of evil," (ii) she reported that some Jews collaborated with the Nazis, resulting in more deaths than chaos would have caused, and (iii) she said she loves her friends but not any "people," in this case, the Jews. On all three counts she was condemned for abandoning her people. Today, at a remove from the heat of that moment, she was clearly correct on all counts. For more see www.yacowar.blogspot.com.
Not loving the Jews was not being anti-Semitic but refusing to emotionalize her consideration of the issues. Arendt was opposed to the blanket love of any group of people, not based on personal engagement, because such nationalist or other group identification precluded the thoughtful consideration of any issues around them. She most valued a rational, thoughtful approach that was not prejudged or proscribed by any -ism or convention. As for some Jews' collaboration, she simply reported facts that arose at the trial. (Indeed, Rudolf van den Berg's new film Suskind details precisely that collaboration.) Nor was that observation anti-Semitic, for the possibly well-intentioned collaboration in the face of horrid danger is a plausible response among any people. Arendt was pilloried for facing the facts and for rejecting myths. That's what historians are required to do and apparently what philosophers periodically have to remind them to do.
Folks, this is what Philosophy is all about: taking a stand which is not always popular and being able to justify it for the ages. Hannah Arendt is only in this century beginning to receive her due as the most perspicuous political philosopher of the 20th century. After all, it was Ms Arendt who first observed that post-Hiroshima, a conventional war could never again be fought and won. But rather, all pre-emptive invasions who devolve into occupations - that rather than full-scale war or revolutions - the world would sink increasingly into a mire of entropic violence. Her controversial thesis in Eichmann In Jerusalem - yet another masterpiece of at least five in her canon, is that mass atrocities are not committed by idiosyncratic madmen who erect vast engines of evil in which the followers (citizens of the state) serve as the 'cogs' but rather the architectonic of evil consists in the actions of rather ordinary people who for various reasons and rationalizations refuse to think about the ramifications of what they're doing. I mention this point because I've studied Ms Arendt's work for over three decades, lived in Greenwich Village when she was teaching at the New School, and when I saw the film premiere at the Santa Barbara Film Festival this past January I felt that most of the scant audience did not get the point any more than her contemporaries. The film-making is excellent. To dramatize philosophic ideas is challenge in itself. Von Trotta, in the old European style, makes her films with a regular group of actors, and, while the performances were effective throughout, in real life, Hannah Arendt was not nearly so physically engaging and Mary McCarthy quite a bit more which, I believe had something to do with the development their respective moral characters. All in all, a great, not merely a good, film and one of the few worth seeing thus far this year unless, of course, the attributes of fast and furious 6 or iron man 3 overwhelm.
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.
An intense look at the trouble life of philosopher and political
theorist Hannah Arendt , who reported for The New Yorker on the war
crimes trial of the Nazi Adolf Eichmann . It deals with her American
personal experiences , as in 1950 , Hanna (Barbara Sukowa) became a
naturalized citizen of the United States along with her husband
Heinrich Blucher (Axel Milberg) . Arendt served as a visiting scholar
at the University of California, Berkeley, Princeton University, and
Northwestern University. In the spring of 1959, she became the first
woman lecturer at Princeton ; Arendt also taught at the University of
Chicago , The New School in Manhattan and Yale University . Furthermore
, in the movie appears some flashbacks about her relationship with
Martin Heidegger (Klaus Pohl) . Hanna was was a German-American
political theorist as well as a prestigious philosopher . Arendt's work
deals with the nature of power, and the subjects of politics, direct
democracy, authority, and totalitarianism.
This is a brooding and thought-provoking biographic drama about the notorious philosopher focusing mainly the Eichman trial . Stands out the wonderful acting by Barbara Sukowa who is terrific in the title role . Support cast is frankly excellent such as Axel Milberg as her husband Heinrich Blucher , Janet McTeer as the writer Mary McCarthy and Julia Jentsch as her helper , the latter also starred another good film about Nazism titled ¨Sophie Scholl¨ . The motion picture was well directed by Margarethe Von Trotta and it belongs a trilogy dealing with Nazism , formed by ¨Roxa Luxemburg¨ also starred by Barbara Sukowa and ¨Rosenstrasse¨or Street of roses .
The picture is based on real events about Hanna Arendt life ; Arendt's first major book was entitled, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), which traced the roots of Stalinist Communism and Nazism in both anti-Semitism and imperialism . In her reporting of the Eichmann trial for The New Yorker, which evolved into Eichmann in Jerusalem : A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963), she coined the phrase "the banality of evil" to describe Eichmann. She raised the question of whether evil is radical or simply a function of thoughtlessness, a tendency of ordinary people to obey orders and conform to mass opinion without a critical evaluation of the consequences of their actions and inaction.Arendt was sharply critical of the way the trial was conducted in Israel. She also was critical of the way that some Jewish leaders, notably M. C. Rumkowski, acted during the Holocaust. This caused a considerable controversy and even animosity toward Arendt in the Jewish community. Her friend Gershom Scholem, a major scholar of Jewish mysticism, broke off relations with her. Arendt was criticized by many Jewish public figures, who charged her with coldness and lack of sympathy for the victims of the Shoah/Holocaust. Due to this lingering criticism, her book has only recently been translated into Hebrew.
I didn't know an awful lot about philosopher Hannah Arendt before I saw
this movie. Now I know a lot more about her, and about the way she
thinks. After seeing the film, I have even read some articles about her
If that's what director Margarethe von Trotta had in mind when making this film, she succeeded. Her film documents an important chapter in the story of Arendt's life: her articles about the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, and the ensuing tsunami of negative reactions. The reason for those negative reactions was the way Arendt regarded Eichmann: not as a monster, but as a man 'incapable of thinking', a dimwit who just followed orders. This fitted her theory of 'the banality of evil': the worst kinds of evil are often the result of not thinking for oneself.
Veteran actress Barbara Sukowa portrays Arendt as a difficult and complex woman, who is a brilliant philosopher but also stubborn, arrogant and single-minded. In one scene, we see her lying on a couch, when the phone rings. On the other end of the line is her editor, who faces a deadline and asks if she is making progress with the articles. 'Of course I'm working hard, and it would be nice if I could continue working instead of chatting on the phone', she answers. After that, she returns to the couch, lies down and continues smoking her cigarette.
Sometimes it seems that Arendt is incapable of feeling, just as Eichmann is incapable of thinking. Even when her best friends turn away from her, she continues insulting them by telling them 'she doesn't love the Jewish people'. She means it in a philosophical way - you can't love a people the way you love individuals. But nevertheless, it comes across as cold-hearted and insensitive.
Arendt is clearly an interesting person. But that doesn't make 'Hannah Arendt' an interesting film. From a cinematographic point of view, the movie doesn't have much to offer. It's a rather straightforward account of this episode in Arendt's life. The only thing that adds a little depth to the film are the flashbacks of the romantic affair she had with her teacher, the famous philosopher Martin Heidegger, who sympathized with the Nazis. The film suggests that this affair influenced the way she regarded Nazis such as Eichmann, but doesn't make this explicit. In my view, the film is interesting as a history lesson about this remarkable woman, but not as a great cinematographic experience.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The movie starts like a thriller. A man, walking alone in the night, is suddenly kidnapped by some men in a van. The man screams. The image is dark, except for the lights of the van which hurries toward us. We understand later on that the kidnappers were Mossad agents and that the man was Adolf Eichmann. This is 1960. Hanna Arendt (Barbara Sukowa) has been living in exile in New York with her husband (Axel Milberg) for twenty years. She is a well-known professor, she and her husband are a happy couple, she is surrounded by friends. After hearing the news of Eichmann's arrest, she convinces the New Yorker to send her to Jerusalem to cover the trial. The article that she ends up writing and that the New Yorker decides to publish is of course more than a mere journalist account, but a philosophical reflection on the origins of evil. Arendt's now famous theory is that Eichmann was not a monster nor an anti-Semite, but just a cog in the Nazis' infernal machine, unable to think and to feel empathy. This idea is what she called the banality of evil. In her essay, Arendt also denounces the collaboration of some Jews with the Nazis. Of course those ideas create a scandal among the American intelligentsia and the Jewish community around the world. People attack her without trying to understand her, and of course, as it is often the case, without even reading her. How can a Jew who experienced the concentration camps put herself in a nazi's shoes to try to explain his crimes? How can a Jew dare criticize other Jews? Many of her friends break off their relations with her. One of them, on his deathbed, asks her "don't you love your people?" and she answers that she can't love a people, she only loves her friends. Two visions conflict with each other, communitarianism against freedom of thought. The film is interesting in the way it shows this free thinking at work. Hanna Arendt, wonderfully played by Barbara Sukowa, is shown smoking in her apartment, sitting at her desk or in a sofa, lying on a couch, standing at the window. She is shown writing and thinking, and it's never boring. You can criticize the film for many things, but not for its dullness. You can criticize Margarethe von Trotta's academic filmmaking, especially when she uses flashbacks to evoke Arendt's relationship with Heidegger. You can criticize her partial perspective. She never questions her character, she makes Arendt a heroin, a sort of Robin Hood fighting for truth. Arendt's character is far from bland, but she has no contradictions, no gray areas. Except for the final speech to her students, Arendt's work is not really tackled, but this is not a film about a philosophical work, it is a mainstream film about a woman that von Trotta wants us to like. And we do. The film is a tribute. Von Trotta intelligently treats the historical dimension by inserting archive images of the trial. You see Eichmann in his glass cage, answering the judges' questions. You also see survivors testifying, and some Jews trying to justify themselves. Thus, except for one superfluous scene, the trial is not re-enacted, and this is for the best, because fiction cannot replace already existing images. You can criticize the film for its didactism, or praise it for its informative qualities. You can't criticize the film for its lack of accuracy, because it is a portrait, and, like every biography, it is biased. Here, the biography is almost a hagiography, but a hagiography that is open and clear in its intentions.
Hannah Arendt (2012) is a movie co-written and directed by the
outstanding German director Margarethe von Trotta.
The film stars Barbara Sukowa as Arendt, who was one of he leading intellectual thinkers of the 20th Century. Arendt's history reads more like fiction than non-fiction. As discussed in the movie, she studied in Germany under the great philosopher Heidegger, was imprisoned in a Nazi internment camp in France, from which she escaped, came to the U.S., and taught at some of the finest universities in our country.
The movie concentrates on the furor that arose after Arendt wrote about the Eichmann trial for The New Yorker. (These articles were later published as a book.) Arendt brought forth her theory of the banality of evil in these articles. Her point was that an evil person like Eichmann was not a monster, but rather a person who has renounced his ability to think, and therefore has renounced his status as a human being.
Arendt believed that Jews who accepted a modicum of authority from the Germans contributed to the Holocaust, because without the Jewish leaders to maintain order, there would have been more chaos and less killing of Jews.
This latter belief made people furious, because it suggested that the Jews were partially responsible for their own fate. This is hard enough to hear now. You can imagine how it was received in 1961, less than 20 years after the Holocaust.
One weakness of the film is that the script suggests that "everyone" was talking about Arendt's writing. Then, as now, the intellectuals of the Upper West Side of Manhattan did not represent a true sample of the U.S. population. Many people were aware of the Eichmann trial, but Arendt's writings passed unnoticed by most people.
Another weakness is that characters in Arendt's life are introduced once, and then never again. If you miss the names the first time, you'll just have to live without knowing who was whom. That's not so bad, because you can accept Barbara Sukowa as Arendt. Everyone else in the film revolves around her.
If you're interested in the Holocaust and in 20th Century philosophy, the film is a must. Even if those topics aren't important to you, the movie is compelling as a study in human behavior and human interactions. We saw the film at the Rochester Jewish Community Center as part of terrific Rochester Jewish Film Festival. If it's available on DVD or at another festival, I recommend that you see it.
Hanna Arendt is a biopic of the homonymous German philosopher focusing
on her coverage of the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem and the outrage that
her articles on it ensued.
As a historical document, the movie is gripping and mostly clear (though some lines of the discussions of her with her friends are a bit unclear) to laymen. I, for one, had never heard of Arendt and the 'banality of evil' before, but I believe that now I'd be able to talk about her thoughts with making a fool out of myself. For that, I thank the film.
Though, on a movie-making viewpoint, it is a letdown. The flow of the film is pretty odd, with leaps in time and space (eg. suddenly she is in Israel), and the efforts to use transition scenes are pretty untimely. The dialogs aren't the best either, with strange remarks here and there, and philosophic remarks not everyone could grasp.
Hannah Arendt is much more of a history and philosophy class, than a great movie. Though, it deserves a bit of appreciation for successfully exposing a great woman's thoughts to a new generation.
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