The Banality of Hannah Arendt

A new biopic is shameless in its boosterism of the author of Eichmann in Jerusalem, whose dubious legacy should be given its proper context

“So,” the motherly brunette asks conspiratorially, a billiard cue slung below her arm, “Was he the greatest love of your life?” 

No, it’s not a scene from the latest chick flick; it’s from Hannah Arendt, Margarethe von Trotta’s new biopic about the German-Jewish political theorist. The questioner is the American critic and novelist Mary McCarthy, and she is referring to none other than Martin Heidegger, the controversial Nazi-aligned philosopher. The film’s central plotline follows Arendt’s coverage of the 1961 Eichmann trial and its aftermath. Particular attention is given to disputes about the “banality of evil” — Arendt’s notorious thesis intended to explain why the Nazi leader took care of the trains while letting the categorical imperative run on empty. But Geschichtsphilosophie this ain’t.

Part of the problem is that the film leans heavily on the correspondence between Arendt and McCarthy: long stretches of dialogue are taken verbatim from their letters and recast as verbal exchanges. This is curious, for in recent years more information has become available on the Eichmann trial and especially Arendt’s perspective on it than ever before. So why is von Trotta relying largely on the chatty, theatrical exchanges of McCarthy and Arendt for her source material? 

Both Arendt and McCarthy are the subject of seemingly endless fascination and study. And no wonder: they led extraordinary lives. McCarthy, born in Seattle in 1912, became a famously cutting wit among the Partisan Review crowd. Arendt, born in Hanover in 1918, studied under (pun sadly intended) Heidegger and went on to write her dissertation with Karl Jaspers. Arendt’s topic was love: specifically, the idea of love in Augustine. McCarthy’s topic was sex: her taboo-busting, bestselling novel The Group included frank treatments of lesbianism, birth control, and sex from the woman’s point of view. 

While the friendship, however unlikely, was a deep and loving one, Arendt’s temptations and querks of character — exhibitionism, imprecision, imperiousness — emerged dramatically under McCarthy’s influence. Each woman’s work came to betray the stamp of the other’s thought. While writing Eichmann, Arendt breathlessly read McCarthy’s essay “General Macbeth”, in which the Shakespearean murderer emerges a petty bourgeois bureaucrat: 

“The idea of Macbeth as a conscience-tormented man is a platitude as false as Macbeth himself. Macbeth has no conscience. His main concern throughout the play is that most selfish of all concerns: to get a good night’s sleep.” 

In these lines, McCarthy replaces the usual understanding of Macbeth’s driving force as ambition with a sense of his generality (yes, the title is a pun) — just as Arendt would later replace the usual understanding of Eichmann’s driving force as vicious anti-Semitism with that of unreflective conformism. McCarthy doesn’t use the word “banal”, but there’s enough to suggest that Arendt’s understanding of Eichmann follows McCarthy’s understanding of the Scottish lord. 

So it was literary ingenuity and verve that the two women encouraged in each other — and not necessarily truth. This was the case from the start: the friendship almost didn’t take, after a disastrous first encounter.  

It happened at a party in New York in 1945. Mary McCarthy (herself possessed of a Jewish grandmother) expressed pity for Hitler, “who was so absurd as to want the love of his victims”. Arendt was furious. “How can you say such a thing in front of me — a victim of Hitler, a person who has been in a concentration camp!” Amends were only made three years later, when McCarthy apologised, and Arendt conceded that she had not in fact been in a concentration camp, but rather a French internment and refugee camp from which she escaped after a few weeks.

Arendt’s licence with detail is unfortunately characteristic. In the film, New Yorker editor William Shawn says: “She doesn’t strike me as someone who’s off on the facts.” But half a century on, we know indisputably that she was: Arendt the adroit philosopher wasn’t aiming for a second career as an ace journalist. She was rather more credulous towards Eichmann’s testimony than she had reason to be. (Shockingly more credulous, just as she had been with Heidegger.) She claimed that Eichmann in Jerusalem was a “trial report” — but as the film accurately depicts, Arendt was present in Jerusalem for only part of the four-month-long trial, and otherwise relied on court reports and transcripts. The historian David Cesarani’s fastidious study of the case reveals that Arendt wasn’t present for Eichmann’s most damning admissions, in which the defendant’s benign self-presentation gave way to pride in revealing how he actively forged new policies and more genocidal “achievements”. 

Ironically, because she had been driven out of her native country, Arendt was writing in English — her third language — and she didn’t employ it with the precision one would wish from a philosopher. Usually McCarthy was able to prevail on usage errors (“the use of ‘ignore’ to mean ‘be ignorant of'”), but her objection to Arendt’s description of Eichmann’s “notable characteristic”, “the inability to think”, as “thoughtlessness” was ignored.

McCarthy’s objection was prescient. The slippery word opened the floodgates for subsequent debates over whether this “thoughtlessness” — one aspect of the defendant’s “banality” — was exculpatory. Arendt was accused of writing a defence of Eichmann. Besieged, harassed, feeling misunderstood by philosophers and historians, in whom could she confide but a novelist? To whom could she admit that she had in fact written the book “in a curious state of euphoria. And that ever since I did it, I feel light-hearted about the whole matter. Don’t tell anybody; is it not proof positive that I have no ‘soul’?”

The testimony of survivors was a controversial part of the Eichmann case. We are now living in the last years in which such testimony is even possible. Soon there will be no more eyewitnesses to the German evil of evils, and no more voices to testify against those who inflicted it. Our memory of the Holocaust is too precious to let it be distorted, manipulated, confused. 

Which brings me to the most curious aspect of von Trotta’s film. In 2011, on the 50th anniversary of the Eichmann trial, Yad Vashem, along with the Israel State Archives, made more than 200 hours of courtroom footage publicly available. (One can watch it on YouTube, in the original Hebrew and German, or dubbed into English: Von Trotta uses about 20 minutes of this footage in Hannah Arendt: real, recorded courtroom scenes in which the twitchy Eichmann sits in a glass booth, stacks his papers, runs his tongue over his teeth, takes out his handkerchief, answers questions (“I received the matter for its continued processing”; “These records were not the authority of Department 4B-4”)-in short, is human right before our eyes.  

The effect is startling; something like, as Marianne Moore (a poet Arendt was fond of) might have said, seeing a real toad in an imaginary garden. The footage forces the viewer to confront the face of Eichmann — the fact of Eichmann — even if any ostensible banality is undermined by the crescendo of the soundtrack. But in her zeal to stand in Hannah Arendt’s corner, von Trotta gets backed into one of her own simply because the political pendulum has swung in the intervening time.  

Von Trotta, a self-described feminist (as neither Hannah Arendt nor Mary McCarthy was), takes care to have a character mention, for example, that Arendt’s husband Heinrich Blücher was a follower of Rosa Luxemburg (the subject of one of her earlier films). Hannah Arendt quite movingly shows — without stressing the fact — that young Hannah, the sole female student in her university classes, will grow up to teach classes with a good number of female students. 

But after a lecture at New York’s New School for Social Research, one of those students says to Arendt, “The Nazi persecution was aimed at Jews. Why describe Eichmann’s crimes as ‘crimes against humanity’?” Arendt’s syllogistic answer — “Because Jews are human” — not only skates over her troubled sense of her own Jewishness but goes exactly against current thinking, which favours stiff sentencing for “hate crimes” targeting members of minority groups. One wonders if von Trotta would have scripted the scene the same way if the targeted group were women instead of Jews. At another point in the film, during the Eichmann trial footage, we see a short, seemingly random clip of a survivor referring to “two years in Auschwitz — when I was a Muselmann”. One suspects that von Trotta inserted it to suggest that the ultimate target of the Nazi slaughter was undifferentiated humanity — not Jews specifically. But Muselmann in this context does not mean “Muslim” — the word is concentration-camp jargon for the most cadaverous prisoners. 

Von Trotta is eager to fight Arendt’s battles, but time and again shows that she is no more equipped to understand them than McCarthy was. Especially clumsy is her attempt to correlate Arendt’s philosophy to a contemporary posture toward Israel. Despite von Trotta’s having Arendt refer to her Zionism as a “youthful folly”, the political picture has simply changed too much for an overlay of Arendtian acetate paper to mean anything.  

The Yad Vashem footage and Hannah Arendt are not the only film releases to explore Arendt’s legacy, or Eichmann’s. At this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Claude Lanzmann premiered his documentary The Last of the Unjust. More than three-and-a-half hours long, the film is a series of outtakes from Lanzmann’s monumental Shoah, all of them featuring Benjamin Murmelstein, a Nazi-appointed “Jewish Elder”, who speaks about the choices he had to make while running the Czechoslovakian concentration camp Theresienstadt; at one point, he describes himself as a “marionette that had to pull its own strings”. 

Murmelstein is a figure like those that Arendt implicated in Eichmann in Jerusalem, where she alleged that the co-operation of leaders of the Judenräte (Jewish councils) with the Nazis expedited their own annihilation. Murmelstein’s reflections make Arendt’s wholesale indictment of those in his position seem unjust. 

And so the Arendtian myth suffers a bit, on one end from Lanzmann’s repudiations and on the other from von Trotta’s anaemic boosterism. The best outcome would be a recalibration of her legacy, one acknowledging that her literary inclinations (nurtured by her friend Mary McCarthy) occasionally overtook her philosophical principles. 

Asked by her husband if she would write Eichmann in Jerusalem again had she known the consequences, von Trotta’s Arendt replies that she would, adding, “Maybe I had to find out who my real friends were.” If only she had been so adept at identifying her enemies — including herself. 

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