Hannah Arendt, Guilty Pleasure
Thrill to the Jewish Philosopher Queen as she does battle with boring Nazis, The New Yorker, and Mossad
The trial gets a few scenes, with Von Trotta’s use of reaction shots amid archival footage cueing Hannah’s dismay when confronted with testimony regarding the Jewish Councils that were forced or obliged to cooperate with Eichmann, although this is information that she was far more likely to have absorbed from Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews. In any case, her Israeli friends are concerned. “Your quest for truth is admirable but this time you’ve gone too far,” one says, while Blumenfeld uneasily defends her by explaining that it is Hannah’s nature to make people angry. Flashback to Heidegger (Klaus Pohl) telling the young Hannah (Friederike Becht) that “thinking is a lonely business.” (Were Hannah Arendt true socialist realism, that mantra could serve as the movie’s subtitle.) Back in the USA, The New Yorker is shaken by Hannah’s report. Shawn questions her over-the-top characterization of the Jewish Councils; snooty Francis turns abruptly ethnic. Playing pool with Mary, Hannah wonders if her tone was too “ironic”—which is one way to characterize it.
For all its studied objectivity, Eichmann in Jerusalem reads as a highly personal, even traumatized, work. What some described as Arendt’s “arrogance” was a mind-blown absence of self-censorship. The author outs herself in the book’s very first paragraph by citing the “old [Israeli] prejudice against German Jews.” She seems to regard Eichmann’s incapacity for thought as his worst crime, and, in the book’s notorious 11-page section on the Jewish Councils, effectively popularized Hilberg’s then-shocking research. (Hilberg who, like Arendt, was a Central European Jew who escaped to America on the eve of the Holocaust, never forgave her for stealing his thunder even as she replaced him as a target for the ADL, the New York Times, and Dissent alike.)
True, Arendt’s judgment on the Jewish Councils was harsh. Accused, in the movie, by one old friend of insufficient love for the Jewish people, hard-hearted Hannah logically replies that as she had “never loved any ‘people’ ” in the abstract, she cannot love the Jews. “I only love my friends—that’s the only love of which I’m capable.” Meanwhile, friends are dropping like overripe fruit amid the piles of hate mail, some of it sent by her neighbors via the doorman in her Upper West Side apartment building. Colleagues excommunicate her. She is savaged in the journals for which she used to write. Lionel Abel contributes a hatchet job for Partisan Review. Norman Podhoretz publishes an attack called “The Perversity of Brilliance” in Commentary. Both men are represented—although not named—in the movie to be dressed down by loyal Mary McCarthy. (Arendt was hardly a feminist but it’s impossible to miss the sense of a gender-based gang-up of incensed, self-righteous mansplainers.)
Meanwhile, even more dramatically, a car filled with Mossad agents stops Hannah on a country road to lay a vicious guilt trip on the plucky writer: Her report has effectively killed Kurt Blumenfeld. While it is true that Blumenfeld died, refusing to speak with Arendt, and that Eichmann trial prosecutor Gideon Hausner flew to New York to denounce her, the role of the Mossad would seem to be poetic license. Hannah Arendt is, after all, a movie.
It’s also a vehicle. With regards to Arendt’s lecture style, Mary McCarthy called her “a magnificent stage diva” and so she is here, defying her department chairman and shunned by the faculty at the (unmentioned) University of Chicago, and delivering a stirring defense of her position to a rapt audience of students. This grand finale returns the movie to the realm of courtroom drama even as it leaves us with Hannah still pondering the contradiction in her thinking—how can the “radical evil” she analyzed in The Origins of Totalitarianism also be “banal”? (Hegelians have decided that they are identical. See the third appendix of Slavoj Žižek’s Plague of Fantasies.)
Hannah Arendt is ultimately a pleasure, because Sukowa plays the most forbidding of intellectuals as a fabulous, passionate doll. Sometimes clueless, sometimes kittenish, and always, always thinking, her Hannah is not only admirable but lovable. Sukowa’s vitality succeeds in bringing at least some of Arendt’s ideas to life—it should be interesting to see the degree to which, a half century after the controversy she inspired, its embers will be rekindled.
For more of J. Hoberman’s film criticism for Tablet magazine, click here.
The Bluths, returning this weekend for a fourth season, are the Jewish world’s archetypal family