the better truth

the better truth

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Hannah Arendt (2013)

The Banality of the Literati

In 1981 Margarethe von Trotta made an extraordinary film called “Marianne and Juliane” (in German titled “Die Bleierne Zeit” ).  This work captured the angst of post-war Germany through the tumultuous bond between two sisters.  That historical nightmare was used to make a stunning portrait of  the eternal link of family that trumps even the most strident political divides.  “Hannah Arendt”, von Trotta’s eponymous dramatic feature film, continues the theme of magnifying the mass horror through the lens of personal struggle. Arendt’s story seems tailor made for  von Trotta.  Arendt’s rise from star student to refugee to leading intellectual is shaped by Hilter’s legacy. The film might have been inspired by the aphorism: “He who sups with the devil should have a long spoon”. Instead von Trotta delivers view of academic egos clashing in 1960s New York. In the parlance of the New Yorker Magazine, an institution that looms large in the story, the film is a segment of “Talk of the Town” not a feature article by Seymour Hersh.  The disappointment comes from expecting a meditation on the nature of evil and being presented with historical gossip; interesting and highbrow... but gossip nevertheless.

The film opens with Arendt and Mary McCarthy sitting in a Midtown office dishing and avoiding phone calls so they can focus on ‘girl’s talk’. McCarthy’s best known novel is “The Group”, a primogenitor to “Sex in the City”. Arendt’s masterpiece is “Elemente und Ursprünge totaler Herrschaft”; literally translated as “Elements and origins of totalitarian rule” (English title: The Origins of Totalitarianism).  The film is definitely set in Mary’s soap opera but interestingly Hannah seamlessly blends in with the action.  The arc of the story is that Arendt, the legendary German Jewish intellectual, is hired by the legendary editor of the New Yorker, William Shawn, to cover the trial of the recently captured Nazi logistics specialist Adolf Eichmann.  The judicial proceedings are set in Jerusalem. There is strange incongruity between the weight of the matter at hand and the trivial rivalries exhibited. Perhaps the greatest visual representation lies in the abduction of Eichmann by Israeli intelligence operatives in South America. This never meshes with the breeziness of the college campuses and literary salons which the protagonists inhabit. von Trotta wanted to build a bridge between the seriousness of a mass murderer and the public stance of prominent intellectuals. Unfortunately the opposite occurred.  Questions of Eichmann seemed important and underrepresented while the fury of professors and editors hurling invectives grew louder and louder.

There is a cloud that hangs over this film and Arendt’s reputation. It’s name is Martin Heidegger. von Trotta decides to include the fact that Arendt had a passionate love affair with the renowned philosopher when she was a student. This is significant because this intellectual giant was a card carrying member of the Nazi party who never publicly apologized for his affiliation. In addition he was silent about a number of egregious acts he committed while an academic official in the regime. Strangely von Trotta, who feels it’s important to show Eichmann’s abduction, never shows Heidegger actively supporting the Third Reich. On odd omission as so much of the film hinges on his relationship with Arendt. In addition all the discussion of his crimes are through clumsy exposition by other parties.  Most of the scenes with the grand thinker are framed from the gushing perspective of a love-struck student. There is one post war moment in which Heidegger feebly excuses his actions, to a significantly cooler Arendt, with the statement that he failed to be good at understanding politics.  What is completely lost in all the banter about Heidegger: how did this relationship shape her view of Eichmann?

Eichmann is played by himself. One of the reasons to see this feature is von Trotta’s clever use of the actual trial footage. This works against the film as a whole as it steals focus. It is, however, so riveting it begs the question as to Arendt’s primacy in the story.  Her historical view of Eichmann has been vindicated by the ubiquity of her ‘banality of evil” remark.  It is difficult to view footage of the man and believe anyone mistook him for being first rate at anything other than bureaucratic paperwork. He is mediocrity incarnate. He fails to rise to the level of taskmaster - he seems more a task-attender. It is impossible to conceive of someone spending years filling trains with human beings for the sole purpose of having them executed without considering the moral implications. Unfortunately Eichmann gives life to that very unsettling proposition. He is something beyond the worst horror fiction. The incongruity of his being vs. the enormity of his crimes renders him a force of dramatic interest far beyond the pedestrian domain of the rest of the film.

Arendt was pilloried for her reporting on the trial.  She portrays  Eichmann as MERELY a nobody rather than a force of evil. History has shown her to be prescient in understanding the ability of authority to guide ‘normal’ people into committing unspeakable acts of cruelty. Whether or not Arendt read Eichmann’s motives correctly is still a matter of debate. There is also serious disagreement around her stance that Jewish leaders were an integral part of the Nazi death machinery. Her defense of raising this issue stems from an incident at the trial where a holocaust survivor accused another victim of giving names to the authorities. Needless to say her remarks are controversial to this day. This year (2013) the historian Deborah Lipstadt wrote “The Eichmann Trial” which refutes Arendt’s analysis. (interesting overview of the issues in The Forward - ) The debate still rages - but von Trotta never answers the question: how is this dramatic?

The characters in “Hannah Arendt” are locked in their heads with the occasional primal heart rearing up to make love, puff a cigarette or utter a nasty comment.  It must have been difficult for Arendt to lose friends and be threatened due to her firm stance on the trial.  She felt it her ‘duty’ to relate what she believed to be her objective truth. She has very firm answers to all the carping.  She meticulously points out her opponents failures in logic.  She steadfastly denies being sympathetic in any way to Eichmann. She is glad they hung him. She individually responds to every nasty letter with a handwritten response carefully explaining her position. She may be correct but she fails to be sympathetic; neither are most of her compatriots on either side of the issues. Mary McCarthy is the exception. She is likable because she never confuses politics with friendship. Her protection of Arendt is rooted in supporting a friend rather than delineating the veracity an argument. It is about love not logic. Interestingly this is the exact problem that haunts Arendt in her protectiveness of Heidegger. Her friends seem to constantly harp on her relationship with the great master. Is that the root of their disappointment with her coverage of Eichmann? Does the constant refrain of “THIS TIME you’ve gone too far” hint at a collective anger about her dealings with her mentor?

von Trotta has done a great deal of homework. In fact this work has the feel of homework. It’s studied... to a fault. There is no doubt each of the various luminaries stated their positions as represented. The problem is that truth is not the same as accuracy. von Trotta is a leading German director handling the most contentious historical events in her country’s history. Arendt and Heidegger are luminaries with scores of fans and detractors ready to pounce. von Trotta knew she must be very careful in managing the material. Unfortunately cautious factual presentations never make for great drama. It is difficult to understand von Trotta’s view of these people. This is a real problem. She does not love them AS CHARACTERS and neither does the audience. The strength of “Marianne and Juliane” lies in von Trotta’s passion for these people caught in the nightmare of processing the Third Reich’s legacy. The two sisters, in that film, are at opposite ends of the political spectrum... and yet there is a deep love that triumphs. I have not seen that film in 3 decades but there is one scene that still has the power to haunt. One sister is being held in jail for terrorism. The other, a very upper middle class architect, is visiting the prison. The sisters have a bitter argument. The guard enters and says it’s time to leave. Suddenly the terrorist yells something to other about clothes. The two women, who are  in their 30s, metamorphosize into children as they tear off their shirts in an exchange that signals defiance against the grey bureaucratic guards. Despite everything... they are sisters.  von Trotta’s presents none of this magic in “Hannah Arendt”. The former classmate from her days with Heidegger confronts her at the end of her lecture to signal their decades long friendship is over. He thinks she is a Nazi sympathizer. There was no love in that scene... just accuracy. The result is an audience dutifully recording the plot twist rather than crying. This does not belong in a serious drama or light comedy. It is the stuff of educational documentary re-enactment. von Trotta has demonstrated she is better than this film. Unfortunately she never got out of the way of bland ‘truth’.

The real thread of this film is woven in Arendt’s interpretation of Eichmann as it relates to her past romantic relationship with Heidegger. The presence of the ‘real‘ Eichmann and the dramatic re-staging of the kidnapping, although riveting, were distractions. Mary McCarthy’s milieu would have been a perfect place to explore how an ardent intellectual truth seeker is stained by falling for a morally bankrupt professor emeritus. The other characters would have been marvelous foils to delve and discover why it was important for Arendt to contextualize this trial in a manner sure to rile everyone. There are those who are convinced she was a self hating anti-Semite under the Svengali influence of a the demonic Heidegger. Ron Rosenbaum, the author of ‘Explaining Hitler‘ - a Roshomon-like investigation of the nature of the character of the fuhrer, wrote a damming assessment of the two love birds in Slate Magazine ( ). He cites two books published in 2009 which excoriate Arendt’s scholarship and Heidegger’s humanity.   von Trotta, as a director, should have had a firm conviction about the morality of her protagonist. Arendt once said: “the sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil”. That might be factually accurate but as a filmmaker von Trotta should have been able to say whether Arendt was feckless or heroic. Drama rises above documenting facts. It has a point of view. A director has to weigh all material and filter it through the heart and the head. Remember “Marianne and Juliane”. They had strong opinions based on ideas. But they were alive on the screen because von Trotta believed in them and let them inhabit the audience’s mind. The director’s opinion might not be the audiences', but the audience is lost without it. This brings to mind a quote by Heidegger: “Man is not the lord of beings. Man is the Shepard of Being”. Substitute “Film Director” for “Man” and it speaks to the problem with von Trotta’s “Hannah Arendt”.  It is not enough to have character’s stiffly recreate history; a film must have characters that are ‘shepherded’ into being. Once again von Trotta walked on eggshells while making this film. She needed to take Mary McCarthy’s advice on creating fiction: “I am putting real plums in an imaginary cake.” Unfortunately for the audience von Trotta’s cake ended up as un-garnished plums.  It is always interesting to witness the gossipy goings-on of historical figures. But von Trotta is more than a record keeper. She has shown a towering imagination in portraying loved ones. In the end she studied these historical characters to a degree it crushed her ability to be passionate and dream about them. von Trotta left us with their actions without imagining their motives. It is understandable that she would waiver from judging, but there is a danger in producing art in the comfortable zone of accuracy. As Mr. Banality said at his trial: "Now that I look back, I realize that a life predicated on being obedient and taking orders is a very comfortable life indeed. Living in such a way reduces to a minimum one's need to think."

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