Thursday, February 16, 2017

Film Notes: Hannah Arendt

In 2012, Margarethe von Trotta embarked on a project to make a film about the political theorist Hannah Arendt, specifically focusing on her reporting of the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Israel. The results are a film which, although perhaps not a great work of art - is a superbly entertaining way of opening up some very important issues. Indeed, if the issues which are exposed in the film were important in 2012, they are even more so in the more dangerous and turbulent world of 2017. 

The film opens with the kidnap of a man, who is bundled into a truck and taken away. We soon learn that the operation had been carried out by Mossad, and that the man taken was Adolf Eichmann, a key figure in the planning and execution of the Nazi Holocaust from his Berlin office. Eichmann had escaped from Germany at the end of the war, avoided Nuremburg, and spent several decades in hiding in South America. The Eichmann trial in 1961 was the subject of enormous interest around the world; and a great deal of the popular reporting involved dealing with Eichmann as a demonic hate-twisted figure, a kind of human embodiment of evil.

Hannah Arendt was a political philosopher who, because of Jewish identity, had fled from Hitler in the 30s, only to be imprisoned in France after the Nazi invasion. She had escaped and fled to the USA where in the postwar years she had forged a career as an academic, writing extensively about totalitarianism. Arendt was intrigued by the Eichmann trial, and even more intrigued by the way in which it was being represented in Israel and in the West. Determined to assess the matter for herself, she sought (and got), a commission from The New Yorker magazine to write a series of essays about the trial. The film focuses on Arendt's coverage of the Eichmann trial, her writing about it - and the controversy it caused.

In Arendt's estimation, Eichmann wasn't an individual who was motivated by hatred of The Jewish people, some kind of contorted, satanic figure, quite unlike normal people. Rather, he was a dull man who had surrendered his individual personhood in the face of totalitarianism, and lost the capacity for rational thought or protest. The phrase that Arendt gave to the language was "the banality of evil".

This of course is deeply disturbing, as the instinct of all decent people to the evil of Nazism is to recoil and to reassure our selves that we do not have the capacity for such evil. Eichmann though, while organising train timetables for the deportation of victims, did his dull work without any critical thought, patiently working his index files and filing to ghastly effect. It wasn't that he was stupid though, we see in the film that Eichmann was so systematised that he didn't merely 'follow-orders' under threat, but that he equated the Fuhrer's will with the law itself, and that stood in place of any objective morality. He did not plan, invent or ideologise the Final Solution, he was but a banal cog in monstrous system. 

If evil looks utterly different to us, it is comfortable to live with. If we can portray those who have collaborated with great evil as being totally unlike us, characters with nothing but warped, satanic delusions controlling their poisoned minds - then the problem of evil is externalised and we feel unsullied. The film shows that this view dominated the public narrative about Eichmann. Arendt then caused a storm, because her version of Eichmann looked a lot like us, an unremarkable person who had lost his individuality in the face of totalitarianism, who simply lacked the imagination and will to do anything but comply. The line between good and evil then is not drawn between us and others, (the kind of evil which can be kept out by building walls), but runs through each of us. The kind of evil of which Eichmann indulged, is the kind that affects us when we are too banal to discern what is wrong with the world in which we live - and to make a stand against it.

The film moves on to show that reaction to Arendt was savage, she was scorned and blacklisted by all manner of academics and survivors of the holocaust. She was accused of being a self-hating Jew, an anti-Semite, a Nazi sympathiser, and seen as defending Eichmann; while of course she was nothing of the sort, and actually supported the death sentence which was finally handed down. This furore was further stoked when in one of the Eichmann articles Arendt drew attention to the fact that some Jewish leaders had collaborated with the Nazis, which struck another blow against the view that evil is something which affects the other and not ourselves. The final scenes involve Arendt seeking to defend her thesis, and losing old friends because of her approach.

Along with the action in the courtroom, debates amongst academics, and in editorial boards, the film also charts Arendt's personal life during this period. Barbara Sukowa puts in a strong lead performance as the chain-smoking Arendt, ably supported by a good cast who move between English and German (with subtitles), as the action crosses between continents.

In 2017, with a refugee crisis erupting around us, with great uncertainty in Russia and Ukraine, and surging nationalism across Europe, extraordinary volatility in Washington; and the final collapse of the millenia-old Christian moral system as a basis for western ethics; this film seems to be apposite. Not one of us would contemplate active persecuting hatred of 'the other'; that kind of evil is unthinkable. No, the kind of evil we are capable of is that of sheer banality in the face of oppression; of filling our days with things of no consequence, while the system of which we are a part allows the deaths of uncountable numbers of precious souls, from the womb to the migrant camp. The temptation is to picture evil clothed in swastikas, and jackboots. Eichmann's evil came carrying a clipboard and a card index, and looked disturbingly familiar. In the French film, Au Revoir Les Enfants, the children carted away from the little rural school to die in Auschwitz were organised and processed by a dull, and rather pedantic, fat bureaucrat, who wanted to be something like a bank clerk. He is one of the most frightening figures in film, because he isn't Hannibal Lecter, or Frankenstein, he's utterly banal and sees the whole thing as an administative burden he would rather do without. This is a kind of evil which  too close to us for comfort. No wonder they didn't like Arendt's articles.

This is a fascinating film, which contains huge amounts to think about.

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