This article was written on 22 Jul 2013, and is filled under Film & TV.

Hannah Arendt’s Trust in Politics

Barbara Sukowa as Hannah Arendt in the film “Hannah Arendt,” a film by Margarethe von Trotta. (Zeitgeist Films)

At the beginning of Margarethe Von Trotta’s recent film, Hannah Arendt, a bus is driving on a gravel road at night. A man with a flashlight comes off the bus. An army vehicle stops, and the people who come off it beat up and kidnap the man. The flashlight is lying on the ground; its beam illuminates the arid surroundings. Inside Arendt’s apartment it is night. She is lying on the couch, thinking and smoking. I suggest reading this sequence allegorically. Evil forces bring down an innocent man and a beam of light, be it the film projector or philosophy, has to make sense of this mortal interaction and help us to think through the question: how should humans behave in the face of evil in order to continue living as ethical beings?

Hannah Arendt portrays Arendt’s (Barbara Sukowa) happy marriage to Heinrich Blücher (Axel Milberg) in New York. The film depicts the lively social life of these émigrés. It presents the intimate, intelligent friendship of Arendt and the novelist Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer), and examines Arendt’s interaction with her secretary, Lotte (Julia Jentsch). But the film pivots on the study of Arendt’s life-long philosophical quest for an explanation of evil and of thinking. The film dramatizes Arendt’s coverage of the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem in the nineteen sixties. It chronicles the excommunication that Arendt suffers because in her post-mortem of the trial, she criticizes the role of the Jewish leadership in the Shoah. And the film presents the breakdown of a great friendship between Arendt and Kurt Blumenfeld (Michael Degen) due to political differences.

Arendt makes a pitch to the New Yorker to let her attend Eichmann’s trail in Jerusalem and report on it. She had left Germany in 1933 and never saw “these people [Nazis] in the flesh.” William Shawn, the editor, is thrilled to have a Jewish émigré of such high stature cover the trial. Heinrich objects because he does not want memories of her own incarceration in a French concentration camp to overcome her. Colleagues at the New School, where Arendt teaches philosophy and German, are very happy that she will have the honor to be a witness of history.

In the courtroom, Arendt encounters evil and thoughtlessness embodied in Adolph Eichmann. Trotta punctuates her own narrative with original footage from the trial. In black and white Eichmann is seen distracted or bored with the famous opening words of the prosecutor Gideon Hausner: “I am not standing alone. With me are six million accusers. But they cannot rise, point toward him in the dock. They cannot cry I accuse him, for their ashes have been scattered over the hills of Auschwitz…” Arendt is not swayed by the pathos either of Hausner or his mentor, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion. She fears that if the procedures become a show trial then the outcome will be an unjust trial. Arendt’s insistence that Eichmann deserves justice is unusual. Kurt Blumenfeld thinks that since Eichmann is a “predator,” the trial has to expose his hatred of the Jews and then should send him to his death. But the director closely studies how Arendt formulates her thoughts about the nature of Eichmann’s evil actions. She listens to his insistence that he is just a bureaucrat, “The document makes it clear…therefore made the request to section 4B-4 as I was ordered to do. I had to follow orders…” She is watching Eichmann on the TV monitor in the pressroom as if she were trying to break into his mind but Eichmann’s absentmindedness suggests that he might not have a mind to make sense of. “I had orders whether people were killed or not. Orders had to be executed in line with administrative procedure,” he insists. Arendt and Kurt understand Eichmann very differently. For Blumenfeld he is the devil but in Arendt’s eyes, “He’s a nobody; speaks in a bureaucratic language: ‘I feel like a rump steak that’s being grilled through…Eichmann is not a Mephisto.” Arendt believes that Eichmann is not an anti-Semite. He did not personally hate any Jew but was intent on obeying the law. She is struck by the difference between the immensity of the crime and the mediocrity of the man who perpetrated the crime.

When she is back in NYC, teaching her students at the New School, Arendt is able to pronounce her thoughts about evil: “In our century evil has proven to be more radical than was previously thought. And we now know that the truest evil, the radical evil, is based on the following phenomenon: making human beings superfluous as human beings. The entire concentration camp system was designed to convince the prisoners they were unnecessary before they were murdered. Punishment did not have to be connected to a crime. Exploitation did not have to profit anyone. Work did not have to produce results. In the camp every action and every emotion is senseless. Senselessness is actively produced in the camps. In the final stages of totalitarianism absolute evil emerges. Absolute because it is not related to human motives. Without totalitarianism we would not have encountered the radical traits of evil.” This description of how meaninglessness pervades the concentrationary universe (l’univers concentrationnaire) is pursued by Adorno as well. He cautions against casting the horrors of the Shoah in a literary light, for such aesthetic renditions of the catastrophe are highly meaningful. At the same time Arendt insists that Eichmann is frightfully normal. This is a contradiction, for if he is normal than how could he be radically evil? And if he is normal why did he not disobey the insane orders that he received?

These questions entail a flashback to Arendt’s years as a student of Heidegger. For the first time he argued that thinking was not the opposite of feeling, “We are thinking because we are thinking beings.” Arendt borrows this analysis and applies it to Eichmann. He was normal because he did not come through as possessing satanic grandeur: “He was simply unable to think.” His inability to think is insane, but during Nazi times this insanity was omnipresent. This insane normality made Eichmann incapable of making a judgment call; he could not think for himself and resist the law of the land. Arendt disentangles the second paradox at the end of the film. Evil can either be radical, as Kant argues, or banal but it cannot be both radical and banal. Her solution is wise. By the end of the film she opens up her own system of thinking and concludes that only the good can be radical, at its worst evil is extremes. This statement is politically valuable too. Arendt’s personification of dispassionate thinking, even through the most contentious and emotional issues, despite the personal loses that this resolve costs her, is a model for contemporary academics and intellectuals. This is a point that Trotta’s story-telling surely wants us to take home from this excellent film.

Arendt also commented on the role that the Jewish leadership played in the Shoah. In her articles to the New Yorker she writes that “wherever Jews lived there were recognized Jewish leaders and this leadership almost without exception cooperated with the Nazis. The truth is that if the Jewish people were unorganized and leaderless there would have been chaos and misery but the number of victims would not have been between four and a half and six million people…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.” These expressions make Arendt a persona non grata. One of her acquaintances writes: “That’s Hannah Arendt, all cleverness and no feeling.”

She is excommunicated by her friends and colleagues alike in Israel and in America. The viewers who read Arendt’s philosophy know that she follows in the footsteps of Aristotle on the question of cooperation. Those who refuse to cooperate express unwillingness to live with a murderer—that is with oneself. But her contemporaries feel that she is blaming the victims in their own demise. Kurt Blumenfeld blatantly accuses her: “Eyn lach ahavat Israel? No love for your own people?” Kurt is a stand in for Gershom Scholem. On June 23, 1963 Scholem wrote to Arendt from Jerusalem: “It is the heartless, the downright malicious tone you employ in dealing with a topic that so profoundly concerns the center of our life. There is something in the Jewish language that is completely indefinable, yet fully concrete—what the Jews call ahavat Israrel, or love for the Jewish people. With you my dear Hannah, as with so many intellectuals coming from the German left, there is no trace of it.” (Skinner, ed., 396) In the film Arendt’s reply to Blumenfeld is emotional: “I’ve never loved any people. Why should I love the Jews? I only love my friends. That’s the only love I’m capable of. Kurt, I love you.” These phrases indicate that for Arendt love is an apolitical emotion.

But her letter to Scholem, from New York on July 23, 1963, contains a more intricate reply. She acknowledges that she sees herself as nothing if not as a Jew: “It’s as if I were to say I am a man and not a woman. In other words, it would be sheer lunacy…That I am a Jew is one of the unquestioned facts of my life, and I’ve never wanted to alter such brute facts.” (Skinner, ed., 398) Then she brings up a new allegation that after the constitution of the state of Israel the Jews love themselves and adds that she is incapable of such self-love. More important: “ …the magnificence of this people once lay in its belief in God—that is, in the way its trust and love of God far outweighed its fear of God. And now this people believes only in itself? In this sense I do not love the Jews, nor do I “believe” in them.” (Ibid., 399) These replies are still being debated today. But Trotta shies away from introducing Scholem into the controversy. At the end of the film Arendt continues to think and to write but she is completely alone. Even those who remain loyal to her like Heinrich, Mary, and Lotte have left Arendt’s darkened study. Did Arendt’s thoughts about Eichmann’s trial enhance the good or were these thoughts lost in political disagreements that became more entrenched?


Skinner, Anthony David. Ed., and translator. A Life in Letters, 1914 – 1982 Gershom Scholem. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 2002.

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