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Arendt in New York City

By (July 1, 2013) No Comment

…when I speak of the banality of evil I do so only on the strictly factual level, pointing to a phenomenon which stared one in the face at the trial.
—Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem

 1“We are two German women and we were scared throughout the whole film. We thought people would say, what right do you have to make this film about the Holocaust?” Director Margarethe von Trotta shared a look with actress Barbara Sukowa, then they both looked over at Pamela Katz, co-screenwriter for the new film Hannah Arendt. “So it was good that we found a Jew to work with us.” The audience laughed, and Katz smiled, though she looked a little startled.

I was at a panel discussion about the film at New York University one rainy night in May. In addition to von Trotta, Katz, and Sukowa, who played Arendt, actress Janet McTeer, and scholar Jerome Kohn were also on hand to answer questions. Katz took the microphone from von Trotta and said, “I never thought about working with Barbara and Margarethe like that, but I must say that it never occurred to me to think that I had no right to make this film. Of course I had the right.” In the complicated aftermath of the Holocaust an American Jew can have more moral authority to speak on the subject than Germans. Although Arendt herself was a German Jew in exile from the Third Reich, it was her moral authority to tell the truth as she saw it that was called into question when she published Eichmann in Jerusalem, first as a series of articles in The New Yorker and then as a book in 1964.

Von Trotta’s film focuses on the four years surrounding Arendt’s controversial coverage of Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Israel for crimes against the Jewish people. Eichmann, a member of the Nazi party in charge of deporting Jews to concentration camps in Eastern Europe, had fled to Argentina after World War II and escaped trial at Nuremberg. In 1960 Israeli intelligence agents found him in Argentina and brought him to trial in Jerusalem. Arendt attended the trial for several months, then published what she called her “report” in five installments throughout the spring of 1963. She offended many Jews, several New York intellectuals, and some of her closest friends by arguing that Eichmann was not a monster, but a typical Nazi bureaucrat who demonstrated “the banality of evil,” how ordinary people could act … what is the adverb for what Eichmann did? In our limited vocabulary for monstrousness, Arendt’s turn of phrase was taken up as a way of understanding the Holocaust, though Arendt would always insist that understanding did not in any way imply forgiveness.

In her postscript to the book version Arendt explained further that Eichmann

was not stupid. It was sheer thoughtlessness—something by no means identical with stupidity—that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period. And if this is “banal” and even funny, if with the best will in the world one cannot extract any diabolical or demonic profundity from Eichmann, that is still far from calling it commonplace.

2Yet many readers believed her profile of Eichmann as an inarticulate middle manager rationalized his crimes and undermined the Israeli case against him, which argued that he was an important architect of the “Final Solution.” To make matters worse, Arendt criticized some Jewish leaders for cooperating with the Nazis’ tracking and rounding up of Jews. The reaction was immediate and extreme. She received death threats and vitriolic personal attacks in print. In the film her assistant shows Arendt responses she has sorted, pointing to a small stack of letters and then a much larger one: “These think your articles are terrific. And these want you dead. Some of them are quite colorful.”

The controversy was especially personal in New York City, where many of these intellectuals and emigrés wrote and taught. The film depicts smoke-filled parties where discussion tacks back and forth between German and English. It dramatizes a face-off between Arendt’s friend Mary McCarthy, played by Janet McTeer, and a gaggle of male opponents at a panel organized by the magazine Dissent; McCarthy comes off the victor. Arendt believed that there was a Jewish/Israeli conspiracy against her, and that view seems supported in the film by a questionable scene in which Arendt is ambushed alone at her country house by four Israeli intelligence agents who insist she withdraw publication of the book. At the NYU panel an audience member asked about the historical accuracy of the “four thugs” and Katz quickly replied that they were not thugs, but explicitly named in the film to refer to a confrontation between Arendt and Siegfried Moses, an Israeli official, which actually occurred. As Roger Berkowitz, director of the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College, pointed out in a review, however, Moses and Arendt had been friends and the exchange actually occurred when they met in Switzerland; transposing it to a lonely road with three ominous bodyguards makes quite a different –and historically inaccurate—impression.

3In the panel discussion von Trotta and Katz emphasized the difficulty of representing Arendt on film because she was essentially a thinker, a philosopher who valued independent thought above all else — especially as a form of resistance to totalitarianism. They solved this difficulty by focusing on the dramatic conflict around the Eichmann trial, which was intellectual but also emotional and personal for Arendt and many of her readers. They use archival television footage of the trials brilliantly; as the film shifts between color and black-and-white imagery we realize how the past is mediated by its framing. The film presents Eichmann framed by the bulletproof glass that protects him as well as the grainy television screen and von Trotta’s own composition. In fact, von Trotta has Arendt watching much of the testimony from a separate press room (during the panel she noted that she later discovered that detail was historically accurate). We notice how much our perceptions of others are mediated too: we can only see history (and Eichmann) indirectly —through glass and cameras.

Although von Trotta and Katz solved a problem of representing thinking on screen, they did not discuss the problem of representing writing on screen. There is a long and close connection between the narrative arts of film and literature, and even a whole subgenre of films about writer-journalists like Truman Capote or Hunter S. Thompson, but most of those films do not address the written word directly in their own form or screenplays. For example, Baz Luhrmann’s new version of The Great Gatsby is unusual in having words and lines of text float over the images so that the viewer absorbs both simultaneously. Von Trotta takes up a motif that Bennett Miller used in Capote: the visual-aural appearance of their writers typing. Miller included the clack-clack of Capote typing in the trailer, as von Trotta uses the now obsolete sound of a carriage return to advance the credits. Both effectively convey a multisensory impression of writing, and give an idea of the period as well. Miller also inserts a scene in Capote where we see and hear the actor Philip Seymour Hoffman reading the beginning of In Cold Blood at a public event. That gives us the words in the author’s distinctive voice, and allows Miller a chance to cut to a simultaneous scene of the imprisoned murderer Perry Smith watching another man on death row being taken away for execution. The audience, in hats and red lipstick, mirrors our shock and discomfort with this material.

4Capote and Arendt shared a fascination with the human face of evil. Arendt opens her book by entering the courtroom and describing the people within it. It isn’t until the end of her first paragraph that she mentions the defendant and even later before she displays him to us:

a man in the glass booth built for his protection: medium-sized, slender, middle-aged, with receding hair, ill-fitting teeth, and nearsighted eyes, who throughout the trial keeps craning his scraggy neck toward the bench (not once does he face the audience), and who desperately and for the most part successfully maintains his self-control despite the nervous tic to which his mouth must have become subject long before this trial started.

Arendt’s reading of Eichmann’s face will become important as she thinks and writes her way into the idea of his mediocrity. Von Trotta and Katz make this visible in the film: we see Arendt typing up notes, discussing the trial with friends in New York and Jerusalem, and reading piles of transcripts. To an astonishing degree we can see Arendt sifting evidence and coming to conclusions. Von Trotta makes this invisible transformation of ideas into words remarkably absorbing, and Sukowa makes it persuasive.

There is a key scene in which Arendt and William Shawn, then editor of the New Yorker and here played by Nicholas Woodeson, work together on her manuscript. Shawn wonders about some of her interpretations and reads her an example out loud: “To a Jew this role of the Jewish leaders in the destruction of their own people is undoubtedly the darkest chapter of the whole dark story.” Arendt looks him in the eye and says coolly, “It’s a fact.” The scene shows the strength, and limitation, of Arendt’s analysis: she attempted an unsentimental discussion of the “facts” of the Holocaust and the trial without somehow understanding that those “facts” were emotionally volatile. The sentence Shawn cites, for example, is in no ordinary sense a “fact”: it does not only make a claim about what happened but assumes to know how Jews “undoubtedly” felt about it. It uses the vocabulary of darkness, destruction, and “story” to heighten the impact of what she then argued was uncontroversial. I don’t know if that scene between Shawn and Arendt actually occurred (is it a “fact”?), but the sentence remained in the article and the book.

5Arendt did not seem to realize how her tone came across to others. As Israeli writer Amos Elon argued in his introduction to the 2006 edition of the book: “at times her style was brash and insolent, the tone professorial and imperious. She took a certain pleasure in paradox and her sarcasm and irony seemed out of place in a discussion of the Holocaust.” Her essay is filled with snarky asides, like quoting testimony that Eichmann “had not exactly been the most hard working” student and then inserting after a dash—“or, one may add, the most gifted—.” She hides behind the dashes and the neutral “one,” but her opinions are clear.

Arendt was arrogant, as her critics complained, but the film presents her as a purist, who believes that facts are straightforward and self-evident. Eichmann’s face became another such “fact” that she could only interpret in one way. Von Trotta, Katz, and Sukowa spoke movingly at the panel discussion about providing the archival film footage of Eichmann in part so that their viewers could “read” his face too and see the hollowness there, the lack of thinking, that Arendt saw. But I didn’t see that, exactly. Eichmann’s face, with its compulsive smirk, was hard to read. In his use of clichés he seemed unimaginative. In his attention to small details he seemed a typical bureaucrat. In his eagerness to answer without reflection he seemed defensive. Was this what Arendt meant by his ordinariness, by “the banality of evil”?

Appropriately, the film does not begin with that phrase but ends with it. In another remarkable representation of intellectual life, the film concludes with Arendt lecturing a classroom of rapt students, and it is then that she explains her term. It was a phrase she regretted later on. Perhaps she couldn’t see or hear the nuances of the word “banality” in English, which along with her sometimes sarcastic tone, made readers think she was not taking her subject seriously enough. Her close friend Mary McCarthy, played in the film by Janet McTeer, sometimes reproved her 6for her word choices or corrected her idioms. The film gives a flippant example using the phrase “when the chips are down,” which Arendt first mistakes as “ships,” but in a more significant example not cited in the film McCarthy argued that Arendt should not have used the word “thoughtlessness” to describe Eichmann’s attitude toward his actions. Thoughtlessness, McCarthy argued, evokes carelessness instead of what Arendt meant quite literally: that he was “without thought.”

Katz and von Trotta are careful to show the significance of wording whenever possible — as in Eichmann’s testimony that “orders must be executed.” The passive construction of that sentence elides and empties out human agency, which supports Arendt’s claim that Eichmann was a “nobody” and that totalitarianism dehumanizes. The sentence makes a literal “fact” of the multiple meanings of “executed.” Arendt ends both the book and article versions of Eichmann in Jerusalem with Eichmann’s own execution, and she refused to start writing the article until the court’s verdict was announced. In the end the book and the film are not about who has the right to tell this story, but rather who has the responsibility, a word that Arendt honored in her life and work. The women who made this film have shouldered that burden and made it seem light.

Victoria Olsen is a Senior Lecturer in the Expository Writing Program of New York University and a biographer of Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron.

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