Innocent Laughter, Intellectual Legacy: Margarethe von Trotta’s film Hannah Arendt

by Daniel Garrett Volume 20, Issue 8 / August 2016 18 minutes (4480 words)

“Everything is simple for a genius,” says a longtime but inevitably inconstant male friend, a very emotional Jewish scholar, to Hannah Arendt in the film which takes the great woman’s name as its own. Of course, geniuses see complexity, but their long cultivated gift, their discipline and commitment, endows geniuses with greater ease—clarity, honesty, and mastery—with the subjects that confuse others. In the beginning of Margarethe von Trotta’s film Hannah Arendt, a film of Germany, America, and Israel, a film of lecture halls and private apartments, of public accusations and personal kisses, of flowers and meals and drinking and smoking, the philosopher Hannah Arendt refuses to end her friendship with Mary McCarthy’s husband after McCarthy and her husband separate and plan to divorce, refusing to let friendship go so easily; and, later, after the great controversy following Arendt’s reporting on the trial of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, when so many of Arendt’s professional colleagues and personal associates criticized and even abandoned Arendt, Arendt says that maybe she needed to find out who her real friends were. The film, then, is about friendship and history and philosophy and truth and justice—the ideals and troubles of human life, and the expense of acquiring wisdom. In investigating Adolf Eichmann, Hannah Arendt learned something about how modern evil makes people superfluous as human beings.

Where else is wisdom to be found? I long have been passionate about nature and its many forms, and the pleasures and pondering to be found on long walks in country woods and along country roads as well as in city parks, just as I have been passionate about reading, thinking, and writing: passionate about thinking and the getting of wisdom—although sometimes one learns through pain and much too late. It can be strange to have a conversation with certain people about the love of philosophy—they seem amused, embarrassed, and impatient with something that has so little popular appeal, and so little practical use. It is not enough to say, “I love the pleasures of insight. I want to improve the way I think. I want to understand human existence. I want to have more compassion for the world I see around me.” The philosopher Hannah Arendt (1906 – 1975), the German-Jewish scholar and New York intellectual, has described the intramural warfare between thought and common sense, a conflict that begins within the individual and extends outward, between and among other people. In Hannah Arendt’s book The Life of the Mind (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977), a work based on her Gifford lectures and including commentary on labor, science, art, philosophy, and spirituality, with particular focus on thinking, willing, and judging, Hannah Arendt—on pages 80 through 92 in Volume 1: Thinking, edited by her friend Mary McCarthy—discusses how thinking removes the thinker from the ordinary flow of life, and how, in its separation of mind and spirit from the body, thinking is akin to death. The evasion of the body’s requirements allows for the development of thought. It is this effect that accounts partly for philosophy’s strangeness—thinking, something that everyone does sometimes but which some people do with great devotion (or to extremity). Innocent laughter—rather than spiteful ridicule—is a natural reaction to a philosopher’s vocation and impracticality. Arendt asserts that the history of philosophy has been more about objects of thought than the process of thinking itself, but Arendt wants to describe thinking: “It is as though I had withdrawn into some never-never land, the land of invisibles, of which I would know nothing had I not this faculty of remembering and imagining. Thinking annihilates temporal as well as spatial distances. I can anticipate the future, think of it as though it were already present, and I can remember the past as though it had not disappeared,” Arendt declares amidst her exploration of the intramural warfare between thought and common sense (page 85).

In The Life of the Mind, Hannah Arendt said that every thought is an after-thought, a reflection on something once encountered or observed, then separated from its original occurrence by the mind. “First you see, then you know,” she wrote (page 87). Hannah Arendt described thinking as an activity without final conclusions, with its true subject frequently the mind itself, its own working. She recognized that philosophers are compelled to affirm the intellectual and spiritual life as a necessary and even ultimate reality—and to have philosophy accepted as wisdom itself—but that general principles—and a sense of wholeness—are hypothetical as revelations of truth. Hannah Arendt was an exemplary thinker and colleague, but before that she was a student of philosophers such as Heidegger, Husserl, and Jaspers. Edmund Husserl (1859 – 1938) wanted to apprehend human existence by studying consciousness rather than material phenomena or nature, the usual focus of science. Karl Jaspers (1883 – 1969), though a devotee of the transcendent, placed a high value on human experience and the practical—the psychological and the institutional. Martin Heidegger (1889 – 1976) was a critic of metaphysics and attempted to study human existence in time and expressions of language. Each philosopher was an influence on Hannah Arendt, but their thinking did not circumscribe hers: she studied first with Heidegger, with whom she had an affair, then Arendt attended Husserl’s lectures, and she subsequently became a student and friend of Jaspers. Hannah Arendt was one of the most unique and significant thinkers of the twentieth century: independent and committed to ethics, she wrote about freedom and authority in works such as The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) and The Human Condition (1958).

Hannah Arendt recognized the differences among the responsibilities of public and private life—the differences required of personal conscience and communal duty and business mandate and state law; and Arendt saw that the individual has less value in modern mass society than in earlier times and cultures. Hannah Arendt was dismayed when Heidegger, a thinker she admired and a man she loved, had become associated with the Nazis, ideologues whose ideas asserted virtue while emptying life of value; and she herself had to leave Germany in 1933 after Hitler and his National Socialist German Workers Party came to power—and Arendt lived in Paris, working for Jewish organizations, before going on to New York and teaching at the New School for Social Research, a university of free critical inquiry founded in 1919, and welcoming, beginning in 1933, to many European scholars fleeing persecution. After the catastrophes of the twentieth century, Arendt questioned the worth of the received traditions, and the old understandings of good and evil. Hannah Arendt attended the trial of the Nazi Adolf Eichmann in Israel, writing about it for The New Yorker, reports that were published subsequently in a book, Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963). Observing Eichmann and hearing his testimony regarding his lack of hatred for the Jews Eichmann helped to their deaths, Arendt—in describing his murderously efficient sense of administrative responsibility—articulated the concept of the banality of evil.

Adolf Eichmann was a Nazi bureaucrat who conveyed Jews to extermination camps during the twentieth century’s second world war. Eichmann was a lieutenant colonel, and responsible for the transport of Jews and for the handling of their confiscated property. Eichmann had been captured in 1960 by Israeli security agents in Argentina and taken to Israel, rather than Germany, for trial. Was Eichmann capable of thought, of conscience? Hannah Arendt traveled to Israel to observe the trial of Adolf Eichmann: his 1961 trial lasted a little over a year and was televised, which gave everyone the chance to learn what the Nazis did—and to form their own interpretations of guilt and innocence, weakness and strength, and vengeance and justice. (Eichmann was hanged in 1962, then cremated) Was Eichmann a great villain, or an ordinary man following orders? To what extent is someone incapable of thought morally responsible? Thought inspires us—gives us the spirit and vision—to see and live differently: thought liberates and it endows us with responsibility. Margarethe von Trotta’s film Hannah Arendt, a film intimate and worldly, plain yet resonant, allows us to see a great thinker and one object of her thought, Adolf Eichmann.

The creator of films such as The Second Awakening of Christa Klages (1978), The Balance of Happiness (1979), Marianne and Juliane (1981), Sheer Madness (1983), Rosa Luxemburg (1986), Three Sisters (1988), The African Woman (1990) and more recently Vision (2009), about Hildegard von Bingen, the director Margarethe von Trotta is one of the important women directors. She is also one of the directors who can make the life of the mind perceptible to others—as she did with Rosa Luxemburg and Vision. Margarethe von Trotta, born in Berlin but a descendant of Russian nobles, once an impoverished student, now an acclaimed artist, was interviewed at home in Paris by Lydia Perovic for the journal The Believer, a conversation that appeared online in 2013 (recently accessed June 2015). Margarethe von Trotta had planned to do a full-life film biography of Hannah Arendt, but she then decided, with screenwriter Pamela Katz, to focus on one episode: “We decided to take one period of her life and be there, precise and profound. And this episode with the Eichmann trial offered itself. It was probably the greatest controversy of her life. For me as a German filmmaker, this confrontation with our past was the most important moment. Through this event, you could really demonstrate her way of thinking and her way of being independent. She would not be put into an ideology or a philosophical school of thought. She was still very linked to Heidegger in her thinking, and to Kant and Plato, but she was forging her own philosophical path. There’s one phrase I like most in her writing: thinking without a banister. That is the film, summarized: think on your own.” The film is a recovery of history, an assortment of sharp fragments—of fact and memory and analysis, of doubt and pain and hope. It is an affirmation of independent thought.

The film Hannah Arendt, written by Pamela Katz with Margarethe von Trotta, and featuring the cinematography of Caroline Champetier, and edited by Bettina Böhler, stars the actors Barbara Sukowa as Hannah Arendt, Axel Milberg as Hannah’s loving and flirtatious husband Heinrich Blücher, Janet McTeer as Hannah’s chatty and loyal friend, the writer Mary McCarthy, Julia Jentsch as Hannah’s assistant Lotte Köhler, and Ulrich Noethen as a friend from Hannah’s student days who is disappointed in Hannah’s conclusions, Hans Jonas, with Michael Degen as Kurt Blumenfeld, and Klaus Pohl as Martin Heidegger. (Historical footage of Adolf Eichmann at trial is integrated into the film.) Arendt and her husband Heinrich disagree about the handling of the Eichmann trial. Why was the Eichmann trial held in Israel, rather than Germany? Was it enough that many Jewish survivors of the Nazis moved to Israel? Did the trial in Israel make the Nazi crimes merely a matter for the Jews, rather than for the rest of humanity? A spiritual or religious event, rather than a legal procedure? Arendt receives approval from the magazine The New Yorker to write about the Eichmann trial and she travels to Israel—the light, stone, and sand of Israel is beautiful. Arendt meets old friends and their families. Adolf Eichmann is placed by the Israeli court in a glass cage, surrounded by guards, before a panel of judges. Eichmann speaks about administrative responsibility, not moral responsibility. He admits to being in charge of only part of the task of handling the Jews. (Eichmann looks peevish and petty, and his German language comments are said to be lacking not only in eloquence but in grammatical correctness.) Witnesses testify—the pain of their experience still throbs through their words and gestures, sometimes convulsing them. Yet, their testimony is about general circumstances—not principally about Adolf Eichmann. Hannah Arendt is surprised by the smallness of Eichmann as a man. She returns to America with trial transcripts and tapes—it is complex material she must get through while continuing her marriage, her friendships, and her teaching responsibilities. Realities and responsibilities cross. “We were put in concentration camps by our enemies and detention camps by our friends,” Arendt says of the German and the French, remembering her experience during the war, to a class of inquiring students.

Hannah Arendt described how, during the Israeli trial, Adolf Eichmann renounced his personal identity in his claim that he was just following orders. The Israeli court attempted to reveal history and ideology, but Eichmann insisted on the bureaucratic nature of his work. (Was Eichmann a liar? Was he refusing to engage the court on its own terms, legal or moral?) Hannah Arendt thought about what she saw and heard and read: she analyzed the evidence. Others responded with emotion. Arendt’s work on the Eichmann trial appears first in the New Yorker, then as a book, Eichmann in Jerusalem. “Why should I love the Jews? I only love my friends,” says Hannah Arendt, when asked about her loyalties, her refusal to lie about the Nazis or the Jews, identifying how the organization of Jewish leaders made the Nazi work less chaotic, easier. Hannah Arendt was a true thinker, a philosopher—and that does not mean that she was perfect or always right. It does mean that she had a very particular perspective and mission.

In the May 30, 2013 Paris Review, the philosophy and political science professor Roger Berkowitz wrote that Margarethe von Trotta’s film Hannah Arendt “accomplishes something rare in any biopic and unheard of in a half century of critical hyperbole over all things Arendt: it actually brings Arendt’s work back into believable—and accessible—focus.” Hannah Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem had stirred controversy—disagreement, anger, condemnation—for her unique interpretation of Eichmann and also for her identification of the complicity of Jewish leaders in the exterminations (their organization—their knowledge of Jews and their authority—reduced the chaos the Nazis encountered). Were the Nazi crimes diabolical or human? Did Eichmann wield power or merely follow it? Was Eichmann a mastermind or a fool? The absence of thought is difficult, though not impossible, to believe, when it comes to the destruction of others. What of human meaning can be discerned after the repudiation of accepted values, after mass murder? The philosopher Hannah Arendt attended the Eichmann trial and observed Eichmann and the traumatized witnesses—and the film, starring Barbara Sukowa as Arendt, shares Arendt’s observation with us, the film audience. “It is her silent intensity, throughout the film, that strikes the viewer, propels us to think with Arendt about what she is observing and its implications. The audience is thus transformed, moving from observing Arendt to thinking with her,” Roger Berkowitz assesses. Hannah Arendt believed that the failure to think is a relinquishment of responsibility, allowing for the eruption of evil.

The actual black-and-white footage of Adolf Eichmann at trial is presented in Margarethe von Trotta’s color film Hannah Arendt: the director wanted to show the actual mediocrity of the man, a view that corresponds with that of Hannah Arendt. Hannah Arendt’s description of Adolf Eichmann inspired anger—something the actress Barbara Sukowa said may have come out of pain, the grief of great loss, and the insult of having a word such as banality associated with that devastating experience. Shortly before the Margarethe von Trotta film Hannah Arendt opened in New York (it is now available for home screening via DVD), there was a panel discussion at New York University featuring the film director, screenwriter, and Arendt associate Jerome Kohn, and lead actresses Barbara Sukowa (Hannah Arendt) and Janet McTeer (Mary McCarthy). There, Sukowa described how Arendt’s tone and language might have alienated others. One of the other panelists (Kohn) remarked on how odd it was that Hannah Arendt’s truth-telling about the complicity of Jewish leaders in the demise of Jewish people during the war earned her accusations of being a self-hating Jew.

Writing in the New York Times (May 28, 2013), the paper’s principal film critic Anthony Scott declared that Margarethe von Trotta’s film Hannah Arendt “conveys the glamour, charisma and difficulty of a certain kind of German thought. Ms. Sukowa, compact and energetic and not overly concerned with impersonation, captures Arendt’s fearsome cerebral power, as well as her warmth and, above all, the essential, unappeasable curiosity that drove her.” Arendt’s curiosity and intellect contend with history—and the perversity of human character. Is it possible to come to understanding even after great effort has been expended to make motive and manner opaque? Is it possible to stare into great destruction and find logic there? Is the working of an individual mind an affirmation against nihilism? Hannah Arendt’s efforts—and even her willful acceptance of the worst that people can do (her acceptance of the facts and determination to understand them)—suggest that all is not lost. Anthony Scott found the film’s presentation of ideas a supreme entertainment—and wished that there were more; and Scott concluded that the film “provides a stirring reminder that the labor of figuring out the world is necessary, difficult and sometimes genuinely heroic.” Months later (August 19, 2013), another writer, the Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert in his own brief appreciation of the director, subject, and film, would declare, “Hannah Arendt is not a particularly subtle picture, nor is it that original. However, Von Trotta’s direction is assured and the film has an incredibly strong performance at its core, and it asks a number of important questions, even though it doesn’t dare to answer them.”

The film critic Richard Brody (The New Yorker, May 30, 2013), often very astute, thought there was too much regard for intellectual life as segregated from daily human activity in the film: “The movie, unfortunately, doesn’t do Arendt justice. Instead of giving small gestures and daily labors grand scope, Hannah Arendt—which stars Barbara Sukowa in the title role—diminishes them with hagiography and a tone-deaf attempt to depict quotidian life in a grand sentimental mode.” (One might argue that “giving small gestures and daily labors grand scope” is very much like depicting “quotidian life in a grand sentimental mode.” Is there a grand unsentimental mode?) Richard Brody thought the film granted Arendt dignity and nobility at the expense of believable humanity. (Is there any dignity and nobility but human dignity and nobility? Is there any way for dignity and nobility to assert themselves except in confrontation with qualities that are their opposite?) Further, Brody thought that Arendt made a mistake in accepting Adolf Eichmann’s description of his own motives, as impersonal, as lacking prejudice, as simply following orders. The bureaucracy of mass murder is, then, the true culprit: the brutal efficiency of the system—the failure of western civilization (content), the success of western technology (form). Richard Brody observes of Arendt’s reporting, “Although Arendt’s view of Eichmann is utterly externalized, she follows him through an extraordinary series of activities, from his signing up with the S.S. to his role in the ‘resettlement,’ deportation, and murder of Europe’s Jews.” Brody dislikes Arendt’s abstractions, her lack of emotion, in Eichmann in Jerusalem. (What good would emotion do? Is his a yearning for an old notion of evil, and an old response to evil? Does Brody want a response that is less philosophical?) Brody very strangely concludes: “As such, the book reflects the absolute darkness of the Holocaust, its unassimilable otherness. From her philosophical, historical, and journalistic failures, Arendt created an accidental literary masterwork despite itself.” Of course, the Arendt book is a masterwork because it was created by a master, working according to her own ideas and methods—and not despite itself.

“In director Margarethe von Trotta’s presentation of this dispute, she draws outstanding performances from her lead actress Barbara Sukowa, who is compelling as Arendt, and from the German actors playing her close friends Hans Jonas and Kurt Blumenfeld. Sukowa wonderfully conveys those paradoxical qualities of Arendt that were well-known to her friends: warmth and kindness on the one hand, and on the other a fierce independence and confidence in her own judgment that sometimes estranged her profoundly from others,” wrote Raymond Barglow in a long essay for the Jewish magazine Tikkun (online June 10, 2013). Raymond Barglow noted the film’s favoritism to Arendt, then quotes Norman Podhoretz’s comment that no one could have joined the Nazi Party who was not a vicious anti-Semite, which seems a questionable assertion: we, longtime film viewers and ever watchful citizens and readers of the historical record, know that some people joined for reasons of perceived patriotism—or just to benefit their own careers. Raymond Barglow does acknowledge that the controversy aroused by Arendt’s reporting stemmed in part from an older conflict within Judaism between concern for Jewish safety and prosperity and the creation of a better world for all. (How much of the truth of Jewish history, life, and character, can Jews allow others to know? What sacrifices are Jews willing to make for the good of others?)

In the New York Review of Books (November 21, 2013) the writer Mark Lilla sees in Margarethe von Trotta’s film a German family drama, a work in which history and morality meet, a play in which generations argue with each other—with the parents accused by their children of weakness. Mark Lilla dislikes some of the mundane sentimentality of Arendt’s domestic situation; and Lilla faults von Trotta’s film for its limited depiction of thinking and blames the medium, film, itself: “Although Arendt defends herself and the task of ‘thinking’ deftly throughout the film, particularly in a fine public speech at the end, we don’t see her arriving at her position through thinking. Film can portray inner psychological states through speech and action and image, but lacks resources for conveying the dynamic process of weighing evidence, interpreting it, and considering alternatives. Barbara Sukowa smokes and rifles through documents and stares into space like a silent picture star, but we get no sense of the play of a mind.” (I, too, wish that we had seen more of Arendt’s interaction with the trial materials.) Mark Lilla seems to be dismissing the many conversations in which Arendt and her friends and associates argue through their differing ideas. Discourse is speaking and hearing, teaching and learning—and it is certainly, here, an embodiment of conflict. Further, Mark Lilla draws attention to the evidence that has emerged in succeeding decades regarding Eichmann’s admissions and his culpability (Eichmann admitted to enthusiasm for his work, and he was quoted as identifying the Jews as the enemy of his own folk—Eichmann did not think enough Jews were killed).

“How did a film that reprises the fifty-year-old controversy about what the German-Jewish refugee and political philosopher thought and wrote in 1963 about the kidnapping and trial of Adolf Eichmann become the most talked-about art-house movie of this past summer, and one of the most improbable independent-film successes in recent memory?” asked David Rieff in The Nation (online November 19, 2013; in print December 9, 2013). David Rieff, the son of another distinguished woman thinker, Susan Sontag, praises the film for presenting thinking as vital to the point of excitement, but Rieff has negative criticism too: particularly, its presentation of the American characters; and the perceived awkward presentation of the affair between the young Arendt and Martin Heidegger; the simplification—the sentimentality—of the charges made against Arendt’s interpretation of the Eichmann trial; the exaggeration (even creation) of a threat on Arendt from the Mossad; and the supposed disinclination to subject Arendt herself to rigorous critique. “What is so curious about von Trotta’s film is its combination of an intellectual ambition to make Arendt’s ideas comprehensible to a new generation and its antiquarian refusal of any dialectical or critical relation to these ideas. It is a film about ideas that remains intellectually detached from them,” concluded Rieff. It is arguable that Arendt’s ideas are contested within the film in the context of the period shown. What seems remarkable to me is how Hannah Arendt’s analysis goes beyond the Nazis to indict a whole system of living and thinking: the impersonal structure of modern life—in which any goal, once adopted, can seem rational, not matter how cruel or stupid. Is that what is finally unacceptable about her observations, a description of a world we do not know how to escape?

Hannah Arendt was not thinking and writing to comfort or excuse or placate anyone. Arendt was writing to understand something, to bring clarity—that is what artists and intellectuals do. I find Margarethe von Trotta’s film a little too plain, a little too simple, though there are times when it bursts into flame—the glimpses of the Israeli landscape and those images of a squinting Eichmann and those times when the film delivers Arendt’s thought complete and whole (as when Arendt speaks to assembled students who want her to address her work on Eichmann in public). There is so little regard for thinking in much of the contemporary world, that if ideas do not come with bells and whistles, with explosions and rockets, they are perceived as boring. Yet, two people talking, two minds meeting, can be profound. Art can remind us of that—and more. Works of art are things of thought. In Hannah Arendt’s book The Human Condition (University of Chicago Press, 1958), in a section on “The Permanence of the World and the Work of Art,” featured on pages 167 through 174, Arendt says that art achieves its own durability and value, its own immortality, in its defiance of the utilitarian and the economic, moving beyond the ordinary and giving stability to life. “The immediate source of the art work is the human capacity for thought, as man’s ‘propensity to truck and barter’ is the source of exchange objects, and as his ability to use is the source of use things,” Arendt states, comparing art to things which it is not—objects of exchange and use (page 168). Of course, we try to justify the significance of art by identifying ways in which it can be exchanged or used—exchanged for money and fame, and used for intellectual and spiritual nourishment. Yet, art, like philosophy, is a thing apart, existing for itself; and the craft of art—its form, its beauty—allow for transcendence. Cognition has a goal, but thought itself does not, asserts Hannah Arendt: and thought is apprehended and reified into art or philosophy—art and philosophy are made possible by the interruption of thinking, in order to produce an object, a complete thing. An idea, or ideal, is fulfilled. It is art that helps to make the earth a more human dwelling, a world fit for action and speech, for justice and friendship.

(Article submitted June 2015)

Daniel Garrett, a child of the American south, Louisiana, where he grew up reading, taking photographs, and enjoying fishing and a good summer barbecue. Daniel moved to New York and became a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, and organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon. Long interested in human complexity, intelligence, experiment, and cultural diversity, Garrett has researched various cultures, and he wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. His work has appeared as well in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics. He returned to the south, where he worked on philosophical fiction, the novel A Stranger on Earth.

Volume 20, Issue 8 / August 2016 Film Reviews   biopic   german cinema   hannah arendt   margarethe von trotta