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Hannah Arendt, Guilty Pleasure

Thrill to the Jewish Philosopher Queen as she does battle with boring Nazis, The New Yorker, and Mossad

J. Hoberman
May 24, 2013
Barbara Sukowa as Hannah Arendt in Hannah Arendt, a film by Margarethe von Trotta.(Zeitgeist Films)
Barbara Sukowa as Hannah Arendt in Hannah Arendt, a film by Margarethe von Trotta.(Zeitgeist Films)

You can keep Fast & Furious 6 and The Hangover Part III. My guilty pleasure this week is Hannah Arendt (premiering at New York’s Film Forum May 29), the latest collaboration between actress Barbara Sukowa and director Margarethe von Trotta. Guilt, of course, being the operative word.

How to characterize the movie’s protagonist? Hannah Arendt (1906-1976) was that German-Jewish wild child who embarked on a teenaged love affair with a married professor twice her age, the philosopher king (and future Nazi) Martin Heidegger; who wrote her dissertation on the concept of love in the writings of St. Augustine; who, costumed as a harem girl, met her first husband attending a Marxist-sponsored masquerade ball at Berlin’s Museum of Ethnology. The young Hannah smoked cigars and exhibited an intellect so dazzling that her mainly Jewish cohort nicknamed her Pallas Athena. She messed with future colleague Leo Strauss’ mind, was arrested only weeks after the post-Reichstag Nazi seizure of power for engaging in illegal Zionist activities, then smuggled herself out of Germany and into Paris (where she directed the local branch of the Youth Aliyah) only to be “interned” by Vichy before escaping again.

Arendt arrived in America carrying a cache of manuscripts entrusted to her by Walter Benjamin—appropriate in that, more than any other individual, she brought the culture of Weimar Jewish intellectuals to New York. She wrote for the German-Jewish press, worked for Schocken (where she edited the second edition of Gershom Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism as well as Kafka’s Diaries), introduced American readers to novelist Hermann Broch, contributed to Partisan Review and Commentary, and addressed the central political issue of her life with The Origins of Totalitarianism, published in 1951—the same year that she, stateless since 1933, was allowed to become an American citizen.

A decade later, Arendt traveled to Jerusalem to report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the onetime Nazi “Administrator for Jewish Affairs,” captured by the Mossad in Argentina; in the late winter of 1963, nine months after Eichmann’s execution, she all but overshadowed the trial with five articles in The New Yorker that were shortly thereafter collected as Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. The most scandalous Jewish-American text to appear between Sholem Asch’s The Nazarene and Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint,Arendt’s report made “the banality of evil” a world-renowned phrase and its author the most reviled Jewish thinker since Baruch Spinoza.

Delivering a robustly physical performance, Barbara Sukowa embodies the tension between Arendt’s pure reason and her concrete emotion. Here I feel obliged to admit my own irrational affection for the actress—not just because of her turns as a Fassbinder femme fatal (in Lola) and a good-hearted Weimar whore (in Berlin Alexanderplatz), although those performances certainly got my attention, but also because she left Germany in the early ’90s and has been since living among us in Brooklyn, mainly as a singer (even with a rock band, The X-Patsys).


It’s not every week that you get to see a movie about an intellectual contretemps, let alone one that rocked the Jewish world. Indeed, in a way, Von Trotta and screenwriter Pamela Katz have attempted something far more difficult and potentially absurd than making a documentary, namely setting out to dramatize an upheaval in the life of the mind. The only filmmaker who has ever really turned the trick is Roberto Rossellini in his early-’70s telefilms Socrates, Descartes, and Blaise Pascal. (Would that he had also essayed Spinoza!)

Von Trotta and Katz could not possibly do justice to the outrage—and outrageous abuse—that Arendt inspired, or to the breadth of her continents-spanning life and thought. A sprinkling of flashbacks notwithstanding, it’s Arendt in Jerusalem and on Eichmann that Von Trotta considers in her film.

Greatly simplified, Arendt’s three great sins were 1) suggesting that the “desk murderer” Eichmann was a mediocre opportunist rather than the devil incarnate (and thus all the more frightening); 2) publicly discussing and denouncing the role of Nazi-appointed Jewish Councils in the Final Solution; and 3) examining the judicial basis for the trial itself. Arendt, however subtle in her analysis, was not given to understatement; still, to a large degree the tumult she inspired was a case of blaming the messenger. (For a pithy, reasoned historical contextualization of the reaction to Arendt’s report, see Peter Novick’s The Holocaust in American Life.)

As a film, Hannah Arendt is a sort of hybrid and not just because it is half in German. The movie is a didactic docu-drama, part old-school Soviet “publicist” film in its idealized, ideological representation of historical figures, and part Hollywood biopic in its entertainingly kitschy notion of how they might have interacted in real life.

Even more fun that the introductory repartee between chain-smoking Hannah and her BFF Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer)—with McCarthy’s reference to “wild Berliners” and Arendt’s amused, heavily accented, snort: “Wild, because we don’t marry all of our lovers?”—is the consternation caused at The New Yorker by her offer to cover the Eichmann trial. While the magazine’s circumspect editor William Shawn (Nicholas Woodeson) is intrigued, his blasé assistant Francis (Megan Gay) is unimpressed: “Philosophers don’t make deadlines.” A teenage intern (revealed in the end credits as none other than Jonathan Schell) can’t restrain himself, excitedly piping that “Hannah Arendt wrote The Origins of Totalitarianism!” “Catchy title,” Francis drawls. Cut to: Hannah, political philosopher and happy hausfrau, slicing a cabbage to make sauerkraut for her beloved second husband, Heinrich Blücher (Axel Milberg, who, unlike Sukowa or McTeer, has a strong physical resemblance to his character).

Hannah is also, as we will discover, a courageous hausfrau who is unafraid to wash her dirty laundry in public. Arriving in sunbaked Israel where she is reunited with her old friend and erstwhile Zionist mentor Kurt Blumenfeld (Michael Degen), she first worries that the Israelis are essentially staging a show trial and then has her eagerness to see Nazi evil in the flesh dashed by Eichmann’s equivocating performance: “He’s a nobody!” she tells Blumenfeld, greatly compressing the detailed descriptions of Eichmann given throughout her report, all predicated on her recognition of the gap between “the unspeakable horror of the deed and the undeniable ludicrousness of the man.”

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.

J. Hoberman, the former longtime Village Voice film critic, is a monthly film columnist for Tablet Magazine. He is the author, co-author or editor of 12 books, including Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds and, with Jeffrey Shandler, Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting.

J. Hoberman was the longtime Village Voice film critic. He is the author, co-author, or editor of 12 books, including Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds and, with Jeffrey Shandler, Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting.