Hannah Arendt (Margarethe von Trotta, 2012)

Originally Published on The Mantle

The medium of film both enjoys and is burdened by its own relation to time. A biopic has two or so hours to capture, convey, and do justice to its subject’s life. Margarethe von Trotta is a rare filmmaker in this regard, as a number of her films are biopics of impressive, larger than life women. For von Trotta, the biopic is the quintessential mode of representing “the inner-psychic worlds” of great minds amidst the controversies that defined them. Her previous films, like Rosa Luxemburg (1986) and Vision (2010), portrayed iconoclastic and larger than life German women whose influence was marginalized over time. The first dramatized the romantic and political life of an early 20th-century Marxist philosopher and revolutionary leader, while the latter honored 12th-century mystic saint and composer, Hildegard von Bingen.

If Rosa humanized a political martyr, while Vision celebrated a religious saint, then Arendt’s titular subject existed somewhere between these two opposing poles: at the nexus of political action and public reaction (or backlash); of quiet contemplation and divine inspiration. The Arendt portrayed here is neither a woman who must choose between a life as a philosopher or a mother, nor as someone who would ever preface her thoughts with, “Well, from a woman’s perspective…” This was someone who, during the height of the Women’s Liberation Movement, had already reached the apex of American academia: she was the first woman to lecture at Princeton in 1959 and was elected to both the Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Academy of Arts and Letters during the four year period this film covers (1960–64); she was the star pupil of arguably the greatest philosopher of the 20th century (among a group that included numerous intellectual giants); and to top it off, she was happily married to a man who fully supported her work and was proud of his wife’s enormous achievements over that of his own.

Admirers of Arendt, if they are like me, will watch von Trotta’s film with a critical eye, constantly checking their knowledge of her life and work against the events von Trotta and co-writer Pamela Katz have chosen to portray. The most interesting aspects of their film have less to do with how they render Hannah Arendt — the critic and philosopher we know through her published works — and more to do with the Arendt enmeshed in complicated relations with the colossal intellects that criss-crossed her life. This is the Hannah Arendt that Barbara Sukowa deftly embodies: brought to life in the everyday interactions with her friend Mary McCarthy, her contemporaries like Hans Jonas, and her editor William Shawn; and humanized by the brief intimacies she shares with her beloved husband, Hans Blücher. Despite a story that unfolds through a series of private moments, Hannah Arendt, true to its subject, voices a universal concern.

It depicts the life of the mind as largely solitary, though not necessarily the lonely business Martin Heidegger warned Arendt of in a flashback to her youth. In another flashback to pre-Nazi Germany, Martin Heidegger informs a young Arendt, “Thinking does not endow us with the power to act.” This point is illustrated in the opening scene: we find Arendt lying down, eyes closed, in deep contemplation. If not for the occasional drag from her cigarette, one would have confused her thinking for sleeping. Yet this is what thinking looks like from the outside looking in. What occupies Arendt’s mind, we as viewers can never know for sure. Thinking can only refract itself, through speeches and written works, after crossing over into the realm of action. In and of itself, thinking remains as amorphous as the notion of the individual subject that encloses and anchors it.

It would have been audacious for a filmmaker to try and distill Arendt’s meditations on thinking, acting, and the rift that co-distinguishes the two within the course of a two-hour feature film. Barbara Sukowa prepared for her role as Arendt by working extensively with a philosophy tutor, reading everything from Heidegger’s thoughts on existential being to Immanuel Kant’s views on justice. One of this film’s virtues is that it chooses to depict how Arendt thought, through the particulars of what she thought about the trial of Adolph Eichmann and the different contexts she articulated the banality of evil in. Ultimately, this is a film about a thinker and her actions. It is not a film about thinking-proper. And it’s all the better because of it.

Public Intellectual

Arendt deftly incorporates lines from actual reviews, private correspondences, and speeches, finding both the right time and person to deliver them: creating cinematic tension, while accurately representing Arendt’s immediate and overwhelming backlash after covering the Eichmann trial for The New Yorker. At the time, Arendt received criticism from the hundreds of readers who wrote letters to the editor, to fellow New York intellectuals, from colleagues she considered friends, and even her own neighbors. Mary McCarthy’s defense of Arendt, published in the Partisan Review, included the lines, “These people get worse as they get older, and in this case it is just a matter of envy. Envy is a monster.” McCarthy’s public rebuttal to her friend’s critics is represented in a satisfying scene, in which she upbraids a group of pretentious New York intellectuals who insist on attacking Arendt as arrogant.

In another scene, following the publication of her investigative series on the Eichmann trial for the New Yorker, Arendt walks down a country road near her home in upstate New York. She is suddenly confronted by men belonging to the Israeli secret service. They proceed to intimidate and threaten her, warning that her forthcoming book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, will never be translated in Hebrew or Yiddish. It remains unclear, however, if this was based on an actual encounter or if it was a dramatization of a request made by an old friend, Siegfried Moses.¹ But in case you were wondering, it took almost sixty years before a Hebrew translation was published.

Gershom Scholem, a founder of modern Kabbalah studies and a longtime friend of Arendt, once said in an oft-quoted exchange published in Encounter: “In the Jewish tradition there is a concept, hard to define and yet concrete enough, which we know as Ahabath Israel: “Love of the Jewish people…In you, dear Hannah…I find little trace of this.” Von Trotta adapts Arendt’s reply in a poignant scene where she visits her friend, Zionist leader Kurt Blumenfeld’s deathbed in Jerusalem, and confides that she has never loved any group of people and that the only love she is capable of is for her friends.² Lastly, Norman Podhoretz’s critique in Commentary, that “Arendt is all cleverness and no eloquence” is tweaked into “That’s Hannah Arendt, all arrogance and no feeling,” and delivered by a New School colleague in response to the film’s moving, eight-minute speech given by Arendt.³

Beyond the intellectual disputes, some in Arendt’s inner circle harbored deep resentments, on a personal level. The film reductively portrays Hans Jonas as extremely bitter and jealous of the relationship Arendt had with Heidegger. Ironically, in 1926, Heidegger had sent Jonas to Heidelberg, from Marburg, to find Arendt after she had refused to give Heidegger her address — prolonging their relationship for another two years. The film touches on Jonas and Arendt’s reactions to Heidegger’s infamous 1933 inaugural address, “The Self-Assertion of the German University,” after he accepted the position as rector of Freiburg University. Jonas fled Germany that same year, feeling personally betrayed by Heidegger’s decision to join the Nazi party.

This leads one to ask, “Why shouldn’t Jonas be bitter about Heidegger’s support of the Nazis and his treatment of Jewish students and colleagues at the University of Freiburg? Why shouldn’t he hold Arendt responsible for forgiving Heidegger and helping him professionally after the war?” Von Trotta had access to an unpublished letter Jonas had written to Arendt in response to Eichmann. Couldn’t von Trotta and Katz have chosen to read or even paraphrase from that letter, rather than having him confront her — whom he sneeringly refers to as “Heidegger’s favorite student” — after her final speech, which has him repeating the same, tired critique about her arrogance that others in the film have already stated?

Instead of portraying Jonas in such an undignified and impetuous manner, why not choose their alleged reconciliation, which the filmmakers had a firsthand account of from Jonas’s wife, as one of the concluding scenes of the film? Hans Jonas was a brilliant philosopher whose work has expanded the moral scope of the philosophical tradition he shared with Arendt. Jonas was a pioneer in the fields of bioethics, ecocriticism, and post-humanism. His early work, The Gnostic Religion (1958), is a standard in the field of Gnosticism. Moreover, The Phenomenon of Life (1966) and The Imperative of Responsibility (1979) were two of the earliest texts to pick up where Heidegger left off in The Question Concerning Technology (1954). He deserves better.

The Eichmann Trial

Hannah Arendt accomplishes more than simply adapting Arendt’s relationships into a compelling cinematic narrative. Von Trotta’s decision to use actual footage from the Eichmann trial — and her refusal to cast their roles and further dramatize it — shrewdly captures and translates the tone and spirit of Eichmann in Jerusalem for the screen. Arendt had gone to great lengths to write against a collective need for the trial to represent anything larger than the actions of Adolf Eichmann, or for it to deliver an overarching sense of closure or retribution for the victims of the Holocaust. As Arendt wrote in the opening pages, “On trial are his deeds, not the suffering of the Jews, not the German people or mankind, not even antisemitism or racism.”

Adolf Eichmann faces his judges in Jerusalem

For Arendt, a number of forces had coalesced in the interest of doing exactly the opposite. The architecture of the courthouse, Beth Ha’am, was more like that of a theater, “complete with orchestra and gallery, with proscenium and stage, and even side doors for the actors' entrance.” In the chapter on court evidence and witnesses, Arendt described the outlandishness of one of the witnesses named K-Zetnik, or “Concentration Camper” in Yiddish. After taking the stand, he proceeds to go on a rant about cosmology and crucifixion, but faints right when the prosecution cuts him off to ask him questions. Von Trotta’s decision to show the actual courtroom footage of this man fainting, without providing the context of who he was, transforms the intended dramatic effect without excluding it from her depiction of the trial.

It was, however, the name and focus of the first chapter of Eichmann in Jerusalem, “The House of Justice,” that did the most in resisting the previously discussed pretensions of who and what are actually on trial. The three presiding judges — all German-born — seem like the only people in the courtroom Arendt respects, as she criticized everyone from Ben Gurion (the “invisible stage manager” of the trial), to the Attorney General of Israel, Gideon Hausner (Ben Gurion’s mouthpiece); even the court translators get blasted. Arendt praises the judges’ cool, stoic demeanor in the face of a media frenzy that expects grandstanding; they are literally and figuratively elevated on stage, presiding before their audience while shirking the theatricality they oversee.

Their “sober and intense attention” was able to elicit more from Eichmann in two and a half short sessions of questioning than the prosecution was able to do in seventeen. Only these judges prevented the trial from degenerating into a “rudderless ship tossed about on the waves.” This introductory chapter was written and structured in a way that placed the quest for justice above everything else, even above and before the proceeding discussion on Eichmann. Arendt makes a controversial point at the end of the chapter to illustrate what happens when the trial tries to shift its singular focus from the crimes of Eichmann to the broader focus of antisemitism throughout history.

Arendt quotes the prosecutor, as he seems to gloatingly state, “Here the intention was to destroy the Jewish people and the objective was not reached.” She then highlights how his interpretation of history ironically operates along the same logic employed by The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which were fabricated by non-Jews as justification for their extermination. Both The Protocols and the Israeli prosecutor identified the fate of the Jewish people as the motive force of history: with the former advancing conspiracies of Jews as somehow destined to greedily control banking, legal decisions, and media; whereas the latter champions Jews as supernaturally predisposed to tragedy and triumph.

The film hardly spends any time portraying the actual trial and misses out on these very features that Arendt goes to great lengths to emphasize; yet still introduces a number of the ideas in Eichmann in Jerusalem outside the context of the trial: through Arendt’s intimate conversations with Mary McCarthy; her reminiscing with friends over champagne in Arendt’s Manhattan apartment; and particularly in the eight-minute apologia, Arent delivers before her students and colleagues.

Reconciliation or Condemnation?

Of course, I must now address the little elephant in the room from Messkirch: Martin Heidegger. It is certainly understandable and expected for a film on Arendt’s life to touch on her relationship with Heidegger. In many ways, their complicated relationship bears on the larger issues of the complicity of Germans in supporting the Nazi party and on what basis they should be judged: be it forgiveness and reconciliation or punishment and condemnation. The period this film was supposed to capture (1960–1964), however, coincides with a ten-year stretch (1955–1965) of almost no contact or correspondence between them (that is, after their initial reconciliation, in 1950).

Arendt in New York, 1969

Perhaps there is something perversely gratifying in seeing Heidegger dive face-first in Hannah Arendt’s crotch, so the viewer knows that something more than intellectual discourse was consummated between the two. Couldn’t von Trotta and Katz have chosen to refer to or draw from Heidegger and Arendt’s available correspondence? These are individuals who went to great lengths to express, within a particular context, their thoughts in writing. To simply bring up their affair without this context helps feed the trolls that loudly and disgustingly dismiss Arendt as a “Nazi lover.” There must be more subtle ways to bring up these issues, while remaining faithful to the events that actually occurred between 1960–64.

In 1963, Arendt received a letter from a 36-year old Jewish man from New York who had begun a correspondence with pioneering Nazi filmmaker and propagandist Leni Riefenstahl: following her post-World War II ban from making films.⁴ He wrote, “I have spent a year in my fight to justify Riefenstahl’s existence as an artist. I have devoted all my heart, my energy, my time, my resources… and I have failed.” He goes on to state how life has lost meaning for him and desperately tries to arrange a meeting with Arendt: whom he believes is “probably the only person alive with enough character and humanity” to help him.

There is no copy of Arendt’s response currently available to the public, but his quest to help Riefenstahl parallels Arendt’s role in helping to edit and publish Heidegger’s later work in English. These parallels beg the question: does someone’s existence as an artist or a philosopher transcend the situational context of their work? If not, then can we have it both ways: by praising their artistic and philosophical inventiveness, while condemning the totalitarian impulse that permeates them? Perhaps the film could have included a scene where she met with this man and probed these issues through his.

The Banality of Evil

The film explicitly addresses Eichmann in Jerusalem’s ten or so pages on the Jewish Councils that presided over the Eastern European ghettos. For her Jewish critics, these pages constituted the most reprehensible claim made in the entire book. Arendt stated, “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.” That Arendt was subjected to the condemnation of many Jews served as a bitter confirmation of her assessment on the ability of others to question and confront the authority of their leaders: be they the Nazis or the Judenräte.

Arendt, however, was not implying that Jews should have done more to resist collaborating with Nazis and are thus partially to blame for their own extermination. Rather, she was singling out Jewish leaders whom she argued failed to uphold their duty to serve their community, which in some cases they sold out to survive; later assuming positions of power in Israel. In fact, “Nazis and Their Collaborators,” the 1950 Israeli law that Eichmann was actually charged under, was initially enacted due to local demand to prosecute more Jewish collaborators who had relocated to Israel.

To me, however, the most disappointing aspect of this episode is not that Arendt overstated the extent of the Jewish Councils in helping to facilitate the death of six million Jews; certainly, Arendt anticipated that fifty years of historical research would provide numerous counter-examples: including well over a million victims of the Holocaust who were outright slaughtered before they could ever board a train. No, the most disappointing part is that Arendt did not extend her thesis on the banality of evil to include the Jewish leaders. Arendt was thereby able to heap scorn and contempt on them in a way that her analysis had prevented her from speaking about Eichmann in a similar manner.

Critics, however, continue to grossly mischaracterize what Arendt did and did not view as Eichmann’s motivations in helping to coordinate the Holocaust. Eichmann, according to Arendt, “was obviously also no case of insane hatred of Jews, of fanatical antisemitism.” By this, Arendt meant that Eichmann obviously supported and espoused antisemitic ideology, but was hardly motivated by a profoundly personal animus or hatred of the Jews. In fact, Arendt found nothing profound about Eichmann at all. His ability to follow orders and fulfill his post, as concentration camps transitioned into extermination centers, spoke more to the banality of collective evil, rather than to some deeply-rooted personal quest to destroy European Jewry.

The banality of evil operates along the same lines of Elie Wiesel’s quotation, “The opposite of love is not hate. It’s indifference.”⁵ As Arendt states in the film, “Once the trains were transported, [Eichmann] felt his work was done.” The film offers an ingenious point Arendt made at the end, about the difference between the radical and the extreme: “Only good can be profound and radical.” Evil is only extreme and overwhelmingly banal. To do good takes courage to act against the extremely distorted dynamics that are endemic to modern society.

Modernity’s greatest evils transform innovation into industries and action into labor: integrating the functions they demand and the people they employ into a framework that absolves its constituents from the greater picture. When our conditioning has been conditioned, thinking by ourselves, and yet for the sake of others, is the only way to salvage our human condition from its encroachment by an artificially manufactured, and yet concretely enforced, sense of mass society. To submit to the creeping banality of bureaucratization forecloses the possibility of thinking. And this, ultimately, is Arendt’s judgment of Eichmann: he understood, but he did not think.

The Responsibility To Think

In the film’s climactic speech, Arendt concludes, “The manifestation of the wind of thought is not knowledge but the ability to tell right from wrong, beautiful from ugly.” Arendt’s final work, The Life of The Mind, largely focuses on this difference between knowing and thinking. Knowing sweeps along the movements it attempts to grasp and indexes them: be they as broad as social movements and public opinion or as specified as the cause and effect of the phenomenon in question. Knowing tells you what is, in relation to how you came to know it.

Thinking, on the other hand, moves beyond knowing. It reconciles how our Being relates to the advent of our knowledge and understanding of a world now transformed in its wake. It does more than ground our impersonal knowledge to our place in the world. It authenticates our Being-in-the-World: hitching the tiny individuating spark we each carry inside us to the possibility for action it discloses to our conscience. For Arendt, thinking and judging are two sides of the same coin. And this is precisely why she was vilified as arrogant.

In an era that increasingly tries to cast us through the lens of mass society and popular culture, Arendt steadfastly held the people she judged to the same standard that validated her right to judge them. For they, just like her, were also individuals with a responsibility to their conscience: that is, to think through the repercussions of their own actions, especially when questioning them would become dangerous. This is why it remains difficult for scholars to characterize Arendt as a liberal or a conservative.

When Arendt started publishing these ideas in the early Fifties, the social sciences were advancing their ability to know through new methods in statistical analysis. Conversely, the field of Political Philosophy — with its modernist notion of progress and enlightenment — was still reeling from the unprecedented horrors brought on by totalitarianism and the two world wars. The social scientists indexed things to numbers in order to highlight trends, while Arendt was indexing the essential dynamics of foregone epochs to the one we occupy in the present.

For example, in The Human Condition, Arendt explored the categories of labor, work, and action vis-à-vis the differences in the private and the public spheres of Ancient Greece and the Modern West. This perplexed a number of readers and critics, who started reading a book that described how modern technology, like airplanes and spaceships, had completely transformed mankind’s relationship to Earth, only to continue into an extended analysis of a range of Ancient Greek and Latin philosophers whose thought still bears on our present human condition.

Arendt always had her eye on the bigger picture, drawing from the most fundamental and enduring ideas of the past. Her work figures outside the current, mainstream trends of academic scholarship: the self- professionalization through the citing of other professors; the incessant proliferation of esoteric jargon that further insulates one sub-discipline from another; and the production of scholarship that adds to the literature without adequately drawing on, and consolidating from, the work that has already been said and done.

Philosophers are rarely remembered. The few who are have transcended the academy, through their actions, to occupy the rarefied role of the public intellectual. These actions amount to more than the squabbles of academia or the courting of controversy for the sake of publicity, often resulting in social and professional ostracism. These rare individuals took a principled stance against entrenched structures of power and the standards of discourse they police. Through their actions they unleash the reactions of those they criticize, revealing the interstices between the power they wield and the interests they pursue in order to further it.

As Arendt wrote in her essay, “On Violence”: “The ceaseless, senseless demand for original scholarship in a number of fields, where only erudition is now possible, has led either to sheer irrelevancy, the famous knowing of more and more about less and less, or to the development of a pseudo-scholarship which actually destroys its object.” Scholarship, like that of living, is to move beyond knowing by daring to think about what you know. Hopefully, people will see this film and question how their own actions are complicit in the suffering that surrounds them, rather than pointing their fingers at someone else when the grotesque extremity of the situation, in which we are already entangled, is forced into the light.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —


  1. According to Roger Berkowitz’s review of Hannah Arendt in The Paris Review, “Most startling, perhaps, is von Trotta’s re-imagining of the visit by Siegfried Moses, a friend of Arendt’s from her days working in the German Zionist Organization and a member of the Israeli government, who visited her in Switzerland to ask her to withhold publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem in Israel. This request is presented as a threatening ambush instead of the arranged meeting between friends that it was, suggesting a significantly more organized animus by the Israeli state than was the case.”
  2. These three publications, and more, are discussed in Michael Ezra’s “The Eichmann Polemics: Hannah Arendt and her critics.”
  3. In the same essay, Podhoretz also embarrassingly claimed Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man was “all eloquence, [with] nothing clever in the way he tells his story of the Negro in America. […] The only sin of the victims is their powerlessness, the only guilt is that of the oppressors.”
  4. This letter can be accessed at the Library of Congress’ website (under Adolf Eichmann File: Correspondence: Misc: A-C: images 8–12), which provides a number of Hannah Arendt’s documents available to the public. The critical letter featured in the film can also be accessed under the same section, image 4: http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/arendthtml/series.html.
  5. Elie Wiesel was also present at the Eichmann trial as a reporter, and his essay “A Plea For The Dead” was written as a critical response to Arendt’s report.

Omar Baig is a philosopher and art critic from the Washington D.C. area. *No chickens were caged in the taking of this meta profile picture

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store