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Enthralling ‘Hannah Arendt’ Biopic Does Not Set Record Straight

Ralph Seliger
June 2, 2013
by Ralph Seliger THE NEW FILM, HANNAH ARENDT, which debuted commercially in New York on May 29th, lends credence to the simplistic notion that her controversial portrait of Adolf Eichmann at his Jerusalem trial was filled with great insight. Arendt didn’t merit the abuse that she suffered as a result of Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil; she was not intending to be hateful or to excuse the Nazis, but her most significant conclusions were drawn from the very limited range of Holocaust scholarship available to her in the early 1960s. It’s a tribute to the artistry of filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta, her co-screenwriter Pamela Katz, and a cast headed by Barbara Sukowa, that despite understanding Arendt’s shortcomings, one can readily appreciate this very laudatory film about her. Arendt is something of a heroine for many, a lone figure who stood her ground in the face of fierce criticism on the New Yorker magazine articles that formed the basis of her famous book. Since its publication, several of her conclusions have been challenged on the basis of more research and knowledge as the field of Holocaust studies advanced. For example:
  • The behavior of members of the Nazi-appointed Jewish councils was more varied than she indicated (and their options were horrifyingly limited), but there certainly was collaboration and self-interested behavior by many if not most;
  • Eichmann was not simply the dutiful, amoral bureaucrat Arendt portrayed (her notion, brought up in the film, that he wasn’t personally anti-Semitic, seems ridiculous);
  • Himmler’s brutal deputy, Reinhard Heydrich, did not have Jewish ancestry.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed the film, finding it intelligent and absorbing even as it reinforced my view of her cold, abstract intellect and the ways in which her book failed factually. ARENDT’S CONTROVERSIAL DISCUSSION OF THE ROLE OF THE JUDENRAT (Nazi-appointed Jewish Councils) did not reflect the range of reactions of these Councils to Nazi commands — from ruthlessly pragmatic compliance to the Nazis’ impossible demands, to outright resistance (almost always resulting in immediate execution) or honorable suicide. Yet she may well have been correct in her harsh (and hated) contention that had the Jewish Councils not existed, or if most Jews had not followed their instructions and not identified themselves, many more Jews would have survived. Still, hiding their identities, or going into hiding — especially in countries where Jews were disliked — was extremely difficult. There’s a certain popularity in some left-wing quarters to extol Arendt as an anti-Zionist, but this is not quite true. In one scene, the film implies that she had only been a Zionist in her youth, which is not accurate, either. Arendt was a Zionist activist at least until 1942, when the World Zionist Organization voted to seek a Jewish state. She was part of the liberal binationalist stream within Zionism that bitterly opposed this decision. A few years ago, I heard something relevant to this at a public event with Nathan Glazer — a sociologist best known for writing Beyond the Melting Pot (with Daniel Patrick Moynihan) and for being one of the four New York Jewish intellectuals featured in the film, Arguing the World, with fellow City College of New York students and future intellectual superstars Irving Howe, Irving Kristol, and Daniel Bell. Glazer said that when he was a CCNY student in its heyday, overlapping with the other three in the early 1940s, he was a member of a Zionist student group (Avukah, Hebrew for torch) that looked to Arendt for inspiration and was open to a “binational state of Jews and Arabs.” I remember, also, a video clip at a conference on Arendt at New York University in 2006, for the centenary of her birth, which showed her being interviewed on West German TV in 1970. In that video, Arendt declared her work for the Zionist movement in Paris in the 1930s, helping young German and Polish Jews reach safety in Palestine, as the proudest achievement of her life. Still, I am satisfied that the director and her co-screenwriter have made a conscientious effort to create a meaningful and truthful (in spirit) film. This impression was confirmed by a very forthcoming e-mail communication to me from von Trotta and Katz, explaining in detail what was historical and what invented in a scene depicting a confrontation between Arendt and Israeli officials demanding that she not publish her book. The scene, they said, actually occurred in Switzerland rather than on a rural road in the U.S.; von Trotta assumed that an Israeli official would travel with bodyguards (who interjected a sense of menace into the scene); and the Arendt character’s combative remark that her Zionist activism was a “youthful folly” was also a dramatic invention. Regardless, the film’s worth seeing, not just for the intellectual and historical issues raised, but for the portrait drawn of Arendt as a person, including a taste (in flashbacks) of her controversial relationship with Martin Heidegger, her academic mentor who became her lover and then a stalwart of the Nazi regime; and of her marriage to Heinrich Blücher, a self-educated German revolutionary and college teacher who (although not Jewish) became a Zionist in his youth and then a fixture in the exile community of German-Jewish intellectuals in New York. A final note: The film’s dialogue is basically a mixture of German and English (in a ratio of about 60-40 percent). I was charmed by a scene in Arendt and Blücher’s Upper West Side Manhattan apartment when Blücher, discoursing intensely in German with their German-Jewish friends, casually employs the Yiddish word, meshugene (crazy). Ralph Seliger specializes in writing about Israel and Jewish cultural and political issues. He was the final editor of Israel Horizons, publication of Meretz USA (now Partners for Progressive Israel), and continues to blog at the Meretz USA weblog and at Tikkun Daily.