Wednesday, December 18, 2013

A courageous search for the truth in "Hannah Arendt"

A version of this review appeared in the Portland Observer here:

I'll confess, I went to see "Hannah Arendt" (10) during its brief Portland theatrical run last summer with only the vaguest notion about its subject and with no real expectation of being moved or entertained. I knew that Arendt was a philosopher and political theorist of some note and that her writing was of historical importance, so I saw an opportunity to further my education. A film about a philosopher was not destined to be riveting.

But riveted I was, and quite inspired. How often does one get the chance to see a film whose subject is a middle-aged woman in a supportive and connected long-term marriage, who is a visionary thinker with the courage to rigorously examine hard questions and to express and then hold to her perspective on those questions, even in the face of withering criticism?

It took a group of strong women -- including German feminist writer-director Margerethe Von Trotta, co-writer Pamela Katz, and producer Bettina Brokemper -- to recognize the dramatic potential in Arendt's story and bring it to life. They studied Arendt's body of work and biographical works about her, as well as reading her letters and interviewing those who knew her, anxious to capture the sense of her significance as a thinker but also her character as a woman, lover, and friend.

Arendt had a dramatic life -- she was a Jew born and educated in Germany who fled to Paris in 1933 as the National Socialist Party was gaining prominence, then was briefly interned in the infamous Gurs detention camp before escaping to the U.S. -- but the filmmakers did not want to make a typical biopic that attempts to capture all her life's major events. They ultimately chose to focus on a four-year period, a decade after Arendt had achieved prominence as a writer, thinker, and teacher in the U.S., when she produced some of her most enduring and controversial work.

In 1961, Arendt traveled to Israel to cover the trial of Adolf Eichmann for the New Yorker. She had sought the assignment out of a keen interest in understanding what had driven Eichmann to become such an important architect of the Nazis' deportation of European Jews to the death camps. The film uses actual footage of Eichmann's testimony to show what inspired Arendt to write a series of articles and, eventually, a book explaining her now-famous theory of the "banality of evil."
In Arendt's view, acts of terrific evil may and often do arise not from malevolent design but from an abdication of the human responsibility to think critically. Eichmann's testimony and demeanor demonstrated a piteous quality of small-mindedness, characterized by persistent invocation of hierarchies and the claim that in all of his actions, leading to the death of millions, he was merely following orders. Arendt's work in response to the trial addressed the pivotal importance of critical thinking, the courage and intention that critical thinking requires, and the devastating potential of a failure to do so.

For many people grappling to understand and, indeed, to distance themselves from the enormity of the evils perpetrated by the Nazis, Arendt's theories were not only challenging but deeply offensive. Arendt particularly angered the Jewish community by including in her analysis observations about the role that Jewish leaders had played in cooperating with the Nazis. She was attacked for being arrogant and heartless, for forsaking her own identity and people. She was excoriated in the press, was threatened with the loss of her academic post, and even lost friends as a result of her work.

The film mines this episode for what it has to teach about Arendt's character. We see her life in New York with her philosopher husband, her peer in intellect and friendship; it is a rare pleasure to see such enduring connectedness depicted on screen. We see the quality of her other friendships, which endured across time and continents, often characterized by intense disagreements but also deep affection. Indeed, Arendt displays a fierce clarity of thought balanced by a rare ability to disagree without disconnecting. Her friends were not always able to reciprocate, to her sorrow and surprise.

Perhaps those same qualities contributed to her surprise at the intensity of the public reaction against her work. Although Arendt was often accused of arrogance, that description does not seem fair in this depiction. The film makes a compelling case that what others saw as arrogance was really strong-minded self-assurance, but not self-importance. When her husband and friends worry about the stir her work is creating, she at first dismisses their concern with her own assessment that the tempest will quickly blow over. Watching her struggle to understand and, ultimately, to respond to her critics (many of whom had not bothered to read her work and badly mischaracterized it) is where the film most rivets and inspires. One rarely sees such courageous independence, particularly from a mature person who stands to lose her prominence and reputation. The contrast with Eichmann is striking.

Von Trotta has succeeded in the difficult task of depicting thinking as action. Arendt, brilliantly captured by actress and frequent Von Trotta collaborator Barbara Sukowa, is often shown reclining and smoking, a testament (excepting the smoking) to the power of contemplation. But it is a film, after all, so Von Trotta also makes wise use of flashbacks to Arendt's pivotal relationship with philosopher Martin Heidegger and of scenes of her lecturing riveted German students and of boisterous conversations with friends. Sukowa, assisted by a uniformly excellent cast, conveys the sense of a life of intention and a mind constantly in deliberate motion.

Arendt's opinions remain controversial, but they permanently altered public discourse on totalitarianism and the problem of evil. Whatever you conclude about her opinions, this fascinating film, now available on DVD, presents her as a shining example of heroic commitment to the search for truth and commitment to the work of understanding. It is one of the best films I saw in 2013.

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