Watching Hannah Arendt, the film, in Istanbul

Margarethe von Trotta’s film of 2012, Hannah Arendt is on at the Istanbul Film festival,  at the Rexx cinema in Kadıköy, the largest centre in the Anatolian part of the city, the other side of the Bosphorus from where I live and work.

Trotta has made many films, and the quality of directing in this case shows great use of her experience. It is quite  a virtuoso performance moving fluently between darkened interiors, sunlit out door scenes, Arendt on her own, noisy arguments between intellectuals (usually German Jewish) of strong personality, conversations a home between Arendt (played by Hanna Schygulla, a great name in German cinema) and her husband,  class room scenes, a journalists’ office and so on. No transition seems forced though many are between very different scenes. Contrasts of light and shade, balanced composition, and  harmonious colours are all deployed with great taste, sense and tact. However, these qualities are also connected with the limitations of the film. The highly accomplished good taste directing fits with an idealised world of academics, and other intellectuals, with upper middles class life styles, whose lives are dominated by earnest or angry conversations about deep questions, mixed with elegant solitary contemplation. Arendt and the other intellectual characters dress in a way which is expensive but understated, a bit heavy and formal, and quite elegant. Arendt’s students at the New School dress in a casual version of the same style. Interiors have marching qualities, the slightly heavy and old fashioned rooms or Arendt’s apartment and the New School set the tone. Lots of sombre and restrained wood and panelling, usually dimly lit, provide the perfect staging for characters who live for ideas and morally serious discussions. It’s a stye that belongs to  European ‘art house’ cinema, though its more found in the minor films than the greatest works. In American cinema, Woody Allen’s films set in Manhattan where academics at elite schools write books to a backdrop of autumnal trees and brownish smart-casual jackets provides the equivalent. I don’t mean to just dismiss Trotta’s cinematography, she does it extremely well and the film is worth watching just for her skill in executing it.

It is also the case that she is animating a series of expectations about traditional intellectuals and their environment. It is a lost world, though that is not something that the film really notes. The film does suggest a distance between the culture of today and the culture of the early sixties, but most obviously through  the prevalence of smoking, centred on Arendt’s heavy smoking habit, particularly at moment of intellectual and moral stress, so drawing us back to the picture of the idealised traditional intellectual. The film refers to a time when an original thinker, not an media intellectual celebrity, might contribute to a well known magazine. That brings us to the central drama of the film which is Arendt’s writing on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a major operative of the Holocaust, in Jerusalem in 1961. Arendt covered the trial for the The New Yorkerand the articles were gathered after that in the book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. The subtitle gives an idea of why the boo was highly controversial at the time of publication. It might be taken to trivialise the systematic evil of the Nazi murder of six million Jews. What Arendt means by banality is that in many cases, including that of Eichmann, evil comes from people of limited intellect and personality, obeying orders and following bureaucratic rules, without acting from hatred. I am not an expert on the issues around Eichmann, but there seems to be a widespread feeling that Arendt underestimated the degree to which Eichmann was a deliberate, calculated, malicious and enthusiastic persecutor of Jews with a strong belief in Nazi ideology. The film displays Arendt’s though processes on the matter through archive footage from the trial, which intercuts with reaction shots of Arendt. That was particularly unconvincing from the aesthetic point of view. There is more interest in the sequences of Arendt in the city. Her sense of distance from observant Jews and Jews from outside western Europe, is indicated as we see her walking through Jerusalem in her Germany-New York good taste intellectual’s garb. Even with Jewish intellectual friends we sense her distance from women with distinctly Hebrew names, and the issue of her move away from Zionism is addressed directly if briefly in the film. Unfortunately her snobbery, and even chauvinism, towards Jews who were not traditional German intellectuals, or something similar, was much more extreme than is indicated in the film. In Eichmann in Jerusalem, she indicates distaste for Jerusalem by suggesting that it is like Istanbul, where I read Eichmann in Jerusalem for the first time, watched the film and where I am now writing.

The film focuses around the outrage initially generated  by Eichmann in Jerusalem, with disastrous consequences for her public life, and more poignantly in her deep personal relationships. The outrage was not just about her use of the word ‘banal’ though did not help. Passages where she referred to Jewish councils which collaborated with the Nazis (under extreme duress of course), and which she found damaging, led to accusations that she was anti-semitic (on the model of the real phenomenon of Jews whose assimilation extended to contempt for unassimilated Jews, or at the extreme complete self-loathing), blaming the victims, excusing the Nazis and betraying the Jewish people. She was caught in the unfortunate situation of playing a major role in the rise of Holocaust Studies and consciousness of the Holocaust, in Israel as well as outside, and of expressing herself in away that could give offence to those who were Holocaust victims, or had reason for identifying with those victims. I cannot comment at all on how correct her analysis of the collaborative Jewish councils was, in any case it certainly did not merit the outflow of abuse and hostility which followed. The book, as I have already indicated, is conditioned and limited by intellectual and cultural chauvinism, it is also a clear exposition of the evil of the Nazi Holocaust, with important discussions of the political, legal and national contexts for the ways the Holocaust operated in different parts of Europe.

The film’s presentation of the extreme negative reaction to Arendt’s writing up of the Eichmann trial concentrates on the melodramatic: stereotypically opportunistic New York journalists, academic administrators and bullying Mossad agents are shown to be Arendt’s persecutors. One of the Mossad agents is an old friend from her Zionist phase, and the academic administrators sit in on a lecture where she wins over her students with her intellectual charisma and deep humanism. A triumph undermined by sadness when she finds an old friend in the audience at the end, who is rejecting their relationship. It is all very well directed and executed but it is an exercise in stylish melodrama, which culminates in Arendt’s regret in expressing herself tactlessly and an apparent commitment to atonement through an engagement with the idea of evil in its full depth for the rest of  her life. This is not an accurate picture of Arendt’s intellectual development. I will just point out that her doctorate was on St Augustine, one of the great thinkers about evil in the history of philosophy. There are a few brief sequences in the film where she remembers the student-teacher  affair with Martin Heidegger she conducted as a student, at the time he was moving towards Naziism. This brings in the idea of commitment to thought as more than abstraction, as something tht is part of life, and does provide some connection between the film and Arendt’s own life of thought, and understanding of thought, though Heidegger himself is not portrayed in a convincing or interesting manner.

On the whole the film has very little to aid understanding of Arendt’s thought though. In some ways it is misleading, particularly where Arendt is portrayed as more interest in love and in friendship than politics. Arendt’s writing is consistently concerned with how humans are social and political in existence, how that intersects with other aspects of human existence, and how all these relations evolve over history. Perhaps in the way that Arendt gets caught up in a public scandal that point is partly made, but it is rather indirect. Some moments refer to what connects Arendt’s life with her thought, as when she is a refugee detained in France, but there is no reference to how she wrote on that issue.  There is no point though in criticising Trotta on this point. I am not aware of any film which does a good job of conveying the ideas of a great thinker, and that is not what cinema is. I recommend this film as a very elegant and skilful portrayal of an intellectual personality caught in a disruptive drama with ramifications beyond her own personal  life, with particular appeal to anyone with any interest in Arendt, or the history of attitudes to the Holocaust.

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