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by Mitchell Abidor Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem is a book that, like Catcher in the Rye, should be read every couple of years. Like Salinger’s masterpiece, it is forever fresh and inspires new insights and thoughts. And, like Catcher in the Rye, it hasn’t aged in the decades since its original appearance. It’s a book of historical interpretation and moral philosophy that has few peers, in which the skill with which the history and philosophy are interweaved makes it virtually sui generis. Its original appearance in 1963 was the cause of a legendary scandal, and the book is in a way frozen in its legend, a legend that has little to do with the actual book. It is the truth and the legend of the Arendt’s work that is the subject of Margarethe von Trotta’s enthralling film, Hannah Arendt. Von Trotta, who already dipped into the realm of biographical film in her 1986 Rosa Luxemburg, succeeds in what would seem to be an impossible task: making a film about philosophy, about ideas and their effect on the lives of both those who create them and those who receive them. In essence, Hannah Arendt is a précis of Eichmann in Jerusalem, with every key idea in the book expressed and examined in the film. Hannah, played with just the right hauteur by Barbara Sukowa, argues her ideas during conversations with largely German émigrés in both New York and Jerusalem, conversations the likes of which few of us will ever have an opportunity to partake in. These exiled intellectuals came from a world where ideas mattered, and in that sense at least they never left Germany. Despite her critics’ claims, Arendt never held the Jews responsible for their own fate during the Holocaust. This utterly false idea of the book was expressed at the time and continues to be so today. In fact, in a soon-to-be-released book by historian Nechama Tec, we are again told that “Arendt conclude[s] that the Jews were passive, and in a real sense they had given up their opportunities to stand up to the Germans.” Only the most obtuse readers find this to be Arendt’s point, but legends die hard, and for someone of Tec’s school received wisdom is the only wisdom. Arendt refused to think with her genes, and as a result was condemned as a self-hater. This opinion, we are shown, was not simply the work of a Jewish establishment that never read the book but mounted a virulent campaign against her, anyway; even among her elevated circle she was considered to have betrayed the memory of the victims, and she lost the friendship of one of dearest friends, one dating from her days as a student in Germany, Hans Jonas. What makes the ferocity of the ad hominem attacks on Arendt even more curious is that on three points at issue in Eichmann’s trial, she backed the authorities: she found the kidnapping of Eichmann justified, the trial in Israel legitimate, and his execution necessary. And still they hated her. Both in real life and in the film, Arendt repeatedly said that what her opponents read was not what she wrote. She attacked the leadership of the Jewish communities during the Holocaust for their role in organizing the threatened people, saying that had there been no organization, chaos would have ensured and fewer Jews would have been killed. She was also specific, both in the book and in the film, in partially exculpating these leaders for falling victim to the general moral collapse that Nazism brought in its train. As we are reminded throughout the film, Eichmann in Jerusalem was originally a piece of journalism, appearing in the New Yorker, and she reported what was said at the trial. It was not historians, but those who lived through the events, who testified to the role of Jewish authorities in the Holocaust, and though it’s never mentioned in the film, it was a Jew who killed the Hungarian Jew Rudolf Kastner in 1957 for doing precisely what Arendt discussed in her book. The surprise and puzzlement at the firestorm is expressed in the film when William Shawn, editor of the New Yorker, when warned that Arendt’s comments would cause scandal, notes that this subject takes up only ten of the book’s 300 pages. Of course Arendt’s key idea, that Eichmann was not a figure of pure malevolence but simply a bureaucrat carrying out a job, caused offense as well, and it is less easy to see why this was the case. Her insight, that evil can be the product of Everyman, is a dark one, and it in no way diminishes the crime committed. But people wanted a cardboard villain, and Arendt, from the height of her philosophy, saw that Eichmann was someone human, all too human, one who did not even need to convince himself that he was not responsible for anything outside his direct role. In the film, we can see the bulb light up over Arendt’s head as she hears Eichmann respectfully submit to the judges that he exterminated no one, that had Hitler ordered it he would have killed his own father. The man was evil, evil and banal. (Those who think that Arendt’s limited attendance at the trial didn’t give her a full flavor of Eichmann the man, that he was actually more obviously villainous than she credited him with being, should watch Eyal Sivan’s 1999 film The Specialist, which is constructed of footage from the trial, from its beginning until its end. Eichmann’s blandness and the irrelevancy of much of the testimony are made abundantly clear over the course of that film, which ends up being a cinematic version of Arendt’s book.) These opinions took a personal toll on the Hannah of the film, alienating not only Hans Jonas but also her lifelong friend, the Zionist Kurt Blumenfeld, who refuses to acknowledge her when she visits him in Jerusalem on his deathbed, telling her that “this time she’s gone too far.” Indeed, the world in Hannah Arendt is split into two camps, and the camp of her calumniators is pretty roughly treated in the film, with people like Norman Podhoretz and his band depicted as dishonest human weasels — as are the cowardly faculty members at the unnamed university where she finally defends her theses before receptive students. Arendt is criticized throughout the film for her haughty coldness, though it is precisely this sin that allowed her to judge events with a clear eye. Her Olympian viewpoint forbids her in the book from ever mentioning her own past, and it is only thanks to her comments on Eichmann’s mangling of German that we have an inkling of her privileged position for knowing the reality of Nazi Germany. No one reading Eichmann in Jerusalem would know it was the work of a woman herself driven from her homeland, a homeland she clearly loved and whose intellectual history she was heir to. Von Trotta allows us to see this side of Arendt, the Arendt who was imprisoned in the French detention camp of Gurs, from which many of her co-detainees would later be shipped to the camps. But her detachment, which enraged her foes, is not something von Trotta hides. As she tells her dying Zionist friend Blumenfeld (whom Ben Gurion criticized for not taking a Hebrew name when he moved to Palestine) when he accuses her of not loving the Jews, “I have never in my life ‘loved’ any people. I love only my friends” — dialogue skillfully extracted by von Trotta from Arendt’s correspondence with Gershom Scholem, another German exile (whom she addresses as Gerhard in the letter), who also hated Arendt’s book. The film also reminds viewers that intellectuals are flesh and blood beings, as exemplified by her clearly loving and carnal relationship with her husband, Heinrich Blucher, and her friendship (and pool playing) with Mary McCarthy. There is another love in the film, of which we are given a brief glimpse: her affair with her professor, the philosopher Martin Heidegger. Von Trotta shows us the professor and his student become smitten with each other during a typically (for Heidegger) abstruse disquisition on thought. Yes, he famously joined the Nazi party, and the film doesn’t pass this over, showing the lovers arguing over his actions, but the Heidegger episode also provides the film, in which thought plays so central a role, with status as a cautionary tale. In the climactic scene of the film, when Arendt lectures a filled university amphitheater on her book and on the nature of evil, she explains that Eichmann was unable to even know what was evil because he didn’t know how to think. But Heidegger did, and he and Arendt fell in love as he discussed the meaning of thought. He, too, was seduced by evil — and he, too, was not a fundamentally wicked man. Evil, in the film, is not only banal, it is an ever-present threat. Mitchell Abidor is a contributing writer to our magazine and a translator, musician, and actor living in Brooklyn. He is author of Communards: The Paris Commune of 1871 as Told by Those Who Fought For It.
Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.
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