The Philosopher as Journalist

Hannah Arendt is a sufficiently interesting and dramatic film to be well worth seeing, although not, as the brief title suggests, a biopic, or even a condensed version of one.. While there are a few brief flashbacks to Arendt’s youthful life in 1920s Berlin, as a brilliant student and eventual lover of the existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger, nearly all of the film is set in the first years of the 1960s, mostly in a few months in 1961. In the previous year, Israeli agents had kidnapped, off a street in Argentina, Adolf Eichmann, the top Nazi who had been directly in charge of arranging the mass murder of European Jews. The Israelis had chosen to try him in open court, appearing in a bulletproof glass booth, inviting representatives of world media, as much as a means of recalling and publicizing the overall story of the Holocaust as to demonstrate Eichmannn’s own special responsibility. Arendt wrote about the trial in a series of long articles for The New Yorker, appearing two years later as as a book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Her account produced a largely hostile sensation, and ended some of her closest personal friendships. The film might better have been called Hannah Arendt and the Eichmann Trial.

Margarethe von Trotta, the director, and Barbara Sukowa, who plays Arendt, have teamed before, and are long-established as stars of the highbrow German cinema. Rapturously received by most film critics, Hannah Arendt is very much presented as an ‘intellectual’ film, almost all talk, in English and in German with English subtitles. But the talk is lively, and occasionally profound. It is a mixture of Arendt’s intimate personal conversations with some of her college lectures; they are used to illustrate both her personal character, and something of her ideas. While never boring, the largely hagiographic character sketch is far more successful than the exposition of her ideas.

Arendt’s character is portrayed through her relationships with her husband, Heinrich Bluecher, her literary friend Mary McCarthy, her academic colleague, Hans Jonas, a Zionist friend in Israel, Kurt Blumenfeld, and various other people. Bluecher and McCarthy remain Arendt’s strong supporters during the tempest of criticism aroused by her articles, while Jonas and Blumenfeld turn against her. McCarthy, as a very American kind of ‘cultural critic’ intellectual, also provides an often amusing counterpoint and contrast to Arendt’s very serious, ‘Germanic’ approach to thinking and reflecting on public matters.

The film unfolds four overlapping ‘Arendt stories’. The first is about Arendt the person: shown as warm, convivial, sometimes humorous, chain-smoking, wine-tippling, a loving wife and refugee-turned-liberal-arts-college academic, already famous for her 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism. The second purports to be about Arendt the philosopher, or to use the label she herself always insisted on, ‘political theorist’, passionately dedicated to her vision of truth, devouring vast quantities of documents and typing her New Yorker articles in a kind of frenzy.

The third is about Arendt the centre of controversy and public sensation, including the painful ending of her friendships with Jonas and Blumenthal, and something of the wider criticism she received from many other Jewish intellectuals in Israel and America. Finally, the last minutes of the film show Arendt, in trouble with her academic colleagues but still well-received by her young students, presenting a defence of her arguments to them (as she had refused to do with the media, against the advice of McCarthy), summarizing her portrait of Eichmann as a bureaucratic nobody, and expounding her more general theory about ‘the banality of evil’. This defence does not entirely refute the charge of many of her critics that she had appeared deficient in feeling, but suggests that this had only been a consequence of her pursuit of truth through hard thinking and fearless writing.

In a summer in which the multiplexes are even more packed than usual with mechanical blockbusters about comic book superheroes and soap opera vampires, it may appear unjust and cruel to attack anything about Hannah Arendt, rather as if one elbowed one’s way through a pack of large and yappy mongrels, trying to avoid their copious turds, only to kick a sleek and handsome little dachshund. Sukowa’s performance is terrific, and she is backed by an excellent supporting cast. The story is intrinsically dramatic, and moves at a brisk pace throughout. I expect many people will enjoy the film, just as a quite satisfactory entertainment.

But I think the film seriously misfires at a more fundamental level, because it is apparently intended to be more than entertainment; a serious work about a serious thinker. But it is not. It is in many ways what used to be called a ‘woman’s picture’, meaning very heavy on the Feelings and Relationships, while rather tone-deaf about the Big Ideas, with which it is apparently proposing to grapple.

I thought this was especially ironic in dealing with a philosophically-learned and very German academic intellectual , made a compulsory e’migre’ to American groves of academe, in some ways competing for public attention with other such figures, as different as Leo Strauss and Herbert Marcuse. Von Trotta seemed to take it for granted that literate audiences everywhere regard, or should regard, Arendt as an admirable and distinctive genius in all her enterprises, and especially in making sense of the great horrors of the 20th century. But even giving her credit for intellectual courage and deep learning, that grand acclaim is open to many objections.

The 1951 book that made her famous, The Origins of Totalitarianism, only cited in a single sentence from William Shawn, the New Yorker editor, as ‘brilliant…but abstract’, was built around a highly speculative interpretation of the way in which 19th century sociopolitical antisemitism, European overseas imperialism, and state bureaucracies had laid the groundwork for an almost identical Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism. Its very favourable immediate critical response was partly due to its combination of moral passion and ingenious reasoning, but also because it was especially appealing to the strongly anti-Communist but still somewhat ‘Trotskyite’ New York intellectual community gathered around Partisan Review.

These were almost all native American Jews, some rather intimidated by the learning of the e’migre’s.. Dwight Macdonald used to joke that he and Mary McCarthy, the only exceptions, had become ‘honorary Jews’. The Origin showed more of their ‘revisionist Marxism’ than of the existentialist philosophy Arendt had studied under Heidegger and Jaspers in Germany three decades earlier, and it was very rapidly refuted as a prophetic work. It was really one of many briefly much-lauded ‘books for the moment’, like Strachey’s The Coming Struggle for Power (1932), Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution (1941), or Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man (1964). Lots of theory, prophecy, and memorable aphorisms, usually the most durable survivals.

Similarly, Arendt’s treatment of Eichmann was also highly theoretical and ‘abstract’. Not attending the entire trial, and too ready to accept Eichmann’s own defence of himself as a bureaucratic nobody merely ‘following orders’, she never seemed to consider the possibility that her idea of ‘the banality of evil’ might apply to a great deal of the 20th century’s mass murder, but not necessarily to all of it, with plenty of malignant and active hatred and cruelty involved as well, including in Eichmann’s case. She sometimes appeared quite naive and uninformed. While poring over the documents used in the trial, she seemed to have learned little, for example, from the Nuremberg trials almost fifteen years earlier.

She also declared herself ‘astonished’ to find nothing of the ‘demonic’ in Eichmann. But after all, Hitler, the central ‘demon;, was long dead, along with most of his top associates. If Josef Goebbels or Reinhard Heydrich had survived the war and been caught fifteen years later, they might more satisfactorily have met all demonic requirements. But The Origins of Totalitarianism had far earlier indicated that she was not much looking for demonism anyway, not even in Hitler. She had little sense of ordinary empirical history or economics, and had been, by her own later account in interviews, someone who started out as a very naive and unworldly human being. until shaken by the Nazi takeover in Germany, and the experience of forced migration to the U. S.

Even then, she retained many conventional prejudices, like a common German Jewish intellectual disdain for East European Jews, an acceptance but permanent discomfort with Zionism, and above all, an excessive confidence was all that was needed to make her a superior kind of political journalist. She was undoubtedly courageous, imaginative and literarily gifted, and determined to be painfully honest. In The Human Condition, her best book, she made a fine comparison and analysis of classical and modern political theory. But as a journalist, she just didn’t prove all that talented at getting things right. That prosaic objection seems to have entirely sailed by Margarethe von Trotta, and it leaves Hannah Arendt as a good movie, but not a really satisfactory assessment of her place in history.