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Sunday, Sept. 15, 2013

Milwaukee Film Festival presents ‘Passport: Germany’

Thinking About Hannah Arendt

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Hannah Arendt’s phrase, “the banality of evil,” has entered the vocabulary to describe not the architects of human catastrophe but the mechanics and janitors—the “little people” who grease the wheels and lubricate the engines of destruction. The German-Jewish philosopher coined the phrase in her essay on the trial of Nazi functionary Adolf Eichmann (1961), originally published in The New Yorker.

The film Hannah Arendt captures the act of thinking, that seemingly most uncinematic of activities. As played by German actress Barbara Sukowa and directed by Margarethe von Trotta, Arendt is determined to strip away the layers of cant—the accumulated preconceptions, prejudices and half-truths—and penetrate by the power of close observation and careful reasoning to the heart of a mystery. How could Eichmann, the painfully ordinary, almost sheepish-looking man in the glass booth of a Jerusalem courtroom have been responsible for facilitating the deaths of millions during the Holocaust? Balding, bespectacled and resembling a failed shoe salesman more than a prince of darkness, Eichmann’s defense was that “orders had to be executed.” The Holocaust wasn’t his idea, he pled, adding he had nothing personal against Jews, but was “obliged by my oath” as an officer to carry out all instructions to the best of his ability.

Hannah Arendt shows the philosopher pondering Eichmann’s trial, especially his testimony; she engages in many animated discussions with her husband, friends and colleagues, but is also shown in deep, solitary contemplation. As her beloved mentor Martin Heidegger put it: “Thinking is a lonely business.” Arendt learned to think from Heidegger and was profoundly wounded when Germany’s dean of philosophy embraced Nazism as Hitler came to power. Arendt fled her homeland for France and might have been pulled into the machinery of death Eichmann helped engineer if not for the timely arrival of a U.S. visa. Among many academic accomplishments, she became the first woman lecturer at Princeton.

The film recreates the milieu of the New York intelligentsia Arendt inhabited, especially the Jewish émigré corner where German was still spoken and English was probably a fourth or fifth rather than a second language. Arendt nevertheless mastered the art of writing English in diamond-hard, precise prose. The Eichmann trial was an opportunity for Israel to demonstrate its ability to pursue justice on behalf of the Holocaust’s victims and a forum for Jews everywhere to sort out ideas and feelings about the genocide. Arendt’s New Yorker essay stirred rancor, opened wounds and questioned easy assumptions.

Many of the attacks on Arendt came from people reacting not to what she actually wrote but to her failure to write what they wanted to read. Understanding evil is not the same thing as excusing it; Arendt wasn’t giving Eichmann a pass but grappling with what he represented. He was not a cartoon heel-clicking Nazi but “a terrifyingly normal human being.” Speaking from the witness stand in a mixture of cliché and jargon, Eichmann was like millions of other people—“unable to think,” performing as expected without self-reflection, carrying a moral compass whose arrow was stuck.

Arendt’s analysis of Eichmann—applicable to functionaries everywhere—would be widely accepted in time, yet her accusation that Europe’s Jewish leaders were complicit in the Holocaust was hurtful and remains controversial. Snubbed by friends and receiving death threats, Arendt stubbornly insisted on her interpretation of the facts. Hannah Arendt is a fascinating dramatization of an episode in history, showing how the philosophical and the political inevitably converge with the personal.

Hannah Arendt will screen at 4:30 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 30, and at 2 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 2 at Fox-Bay Cinema; and at 4:45 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 7 at the Oriental Theatre. It is being shown as part of the Milwaukee Film Festival’s “Passport: Germany” series. For more information, go to mkefilm.org.