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A rarity - a thoughtful film on a challenging subject
on 8 October 2013
An intelligent film on a subject of real importance is a rarity today. Only a few people were watching 'Hannah Arendt' when I saw it in one afternoon at the Greenwich Picture House.
Hannah Arendt, the great German-Jewish philosopher who spent the second half of her life in the United States, was preoccupied with how great and concentrated powers in government and other corporate entities disempower ordinary people and turn civil society into a wasteland, a process which reached its initial apotheosis under the totalitarian governments of the Nazis and Stalin's Russia.
Margarethe von Trotta's film is built around a single event: Arendt's articles in The New Yorker concerning the trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the chief operatives of the Holocaust. Among the several hundred pages of Arendt's report were a few passages that aroused intense hostility. First was the subtitle: `The Banality of Evil'. The banality of Eichmann's persona had surprised Arendt; she was expecting to witness a monster. Upon reflection, however, this banality seemed to her not surprising: a bureaucracy which gives itself over to an evil system must indeed be populated by such types; to look for Satanic monsters would be to mistake the systemic nature of the beast. Further, she observed that anti-Semitism and violence and helplessness had created a passivity in European Jews, to an extent that the Nazis were able to impose a Jewish leadership who cooperated with their plans.
Not surprisingly, given the traumatic after-effects of the Holocaust, there was a strong reaction to these passages and she was vilified by many prominent Jews. Her remarks were misinterpreted and opinions were allocated to her which she had never expressed. With hindsight, it might be observed that a little earlier in time the Soviets had exterminated the entire Polish Officer Corps, more than 20,000 highly-trained soldiers, in similar conditions and with a similar lack of resistance. The presence of the machine-gun and the debilitating effects of prolonged humiliation, helplessness and loss of independence, have a profound effect upon human behaviour.
Published works had already addressed these uncomfortable topics - Katzenelson's 'Song of the Murdered Jewish People' and Raul Hillberg's 'The Destruction of the European Jews' are two notable instances - but Arendt's narrative appeared in that respectable and public interface between the self-appointed `intelligent' tribes of America, The New Yorker.
The film, made by the German director Margarethe von Trotta, addresses these huge and weighty subjects with seriousness and integrity. It is absorbing - gripping, even - and anyone unfamiliar with the story will come away wanting to know more. Certain elements obscure at the beginning become familiar to the viewer as the film progresses. I say: see it. The criticisms which follow are addenda.
First criticism: Arendt extended her observations on totalitarianism to include our modern Western world, with its immense corporate powers and pretence at being democratic, and this is not brought out in the film. Second criticism: Arendt was specific that the Jewish councils were Nazi-appointed, not elected by the communities themselves, and this is not mentioned in the film: it should be an important element in the debate. Thirdly, a preoccupation for many was that Jewish passivity (or cooperation, as Arendt put it) might lessen German guilt. This is addressed only glancingly, an uncomfortable omission in a German-made film.