In 1963, the New Yorker magazine published Hannah Arendt’s five-part series on the Adolf Eichmann trial, which she witnessed in Jerusalem two years earlier.
Her philosophical approach to her articles received fierce criticism and opposition from media and friends, particularly for her portrayal of Eichmann and for her blaming the Jewish councils for acquiescence in the Holocaust.
Hannah Arendt, opening June 21 at TIFF Bell Lightbox, is a captivating film directed by Margarethe von Trotta, which portrays Arendt during this period from 1961 to 1964.
Little is paid to her past, except in brief flashbacks that portray her love affair with her philosophy professor Martin Heidegger. The film does a good job of informing the viewer quickly, through conversations, about her past. She had fled Germany after the rise of the Nazi party and then escaped the notorious French detention camp, Gurs, and fled to America in 1941.
The 113-minute German film begins with Arendt, wonderfully portrayed by Barbara Sukowa (who worked in previous von Trotta films such as Rosenstrasse and Rosa Luxemburg), working as a professor at the University of Chicago. She has gained some notoriety for the publication of her book The Origins of Totalitarianism.
When she hears that Eichmann has been captured in Argentina and secretly whisked to Israel she approaches the New Yorker to let her cover the trial. The magazine’s editor is thrilled to have someone with her academic qualifications cover this historic event although her husband Heinrich Blucher (Axel Milberg) worries it would send her back to the “dark times.”
There are some bursts of humour in this otherwise dark story, especially when others make light of Arendt’s English. For instance, she says, “When the ships are down,” instead of “chips.”
Arendt travels to Jerusalem to cover the trial, most of which is filmed showing her chain-smoking in the pressroom while watching the testimony on the closed-circuit television. All of Eichmann’s scenes are done using the original black-and-white trial footage.
Much of the movie shows Arendt’s thought process through weighty philosophical debates with her American friend Mary McCarthy, her husband, and her researcher Lotte Kohler.
“He’s so different than I imagined,” she says. “He’s not spooky at all. He’s a nobody.”
She argues with her academic friends that Eichmann was not an antisemite; that he was a functional bureaucrat, following orders. Once the transport trains left, his work was done.
Two years later, she finished her 300-page article that the New Yorker published in five parts. It provoked immediate scandal in the United States and Israel. Arendt received plenty of hate mail and is called arrogant and ignorant. At one point, Israeli secret service agents warn her not to publish her planned book on the trial.
The controversy focused on two of her main arguments. She was convinced that Eichmann showed no trace of “Satanic greatness.” That he was simply “unable to think;” that “a nobody” committed the greatest evil in the world. She called this “the banality of evil.”
Perhaps the most controversial point she made, for some, was that fewer Jews would have died in the Holocaust if the Jewish councils, the Judenrat, had not co-operated. She felt there must have been something between outright co-operation and resistance.
The movie builds slowly towards what I feel is the greatest scene, in which the discredited professor holds an open lecture at the university to defend her position.
She argues that rather than defending Eichmann, she was trying to reconcile the shocking mediocrity of the man with his staggering deeds. She said that trying to understand him was not the same as forgiving him.
It is here that Sukowa rises to the fore in an award-worthy performance. Her diction and pitch fit the scene perfectly. This powerful climax alone is worth the price of admission.
Hannah Arendt will also screen at the Vancouver International Film Festival June 28-July 4.