If there is an Oscar for the category, “best glorification of the life of the mind” then Hannah Arendt deserves it. Rarely have the classroom and the writing desk glowed with more fervor on-screen than in Margarethe Von Trotta’s biopic of the acclaimed Jewish political theorist.
It’s a winning presentation. Barbara Sukowa’s Arendt is a lantern-jawed hero of independent thought, steely-eyed in the face of criticism.
And that criticism is stiff, for Hannah Arendt chooses to center its drama around Arendt’s coverage of the Adolf Eichmann trial and the writing of the subsequent book, Eichmann in Jerusalem — a period in Arendt’s life when she was embroiled in controversy. The film makes much of this drama, reminding the viewers that what is now familiar in the history of ideas was once too hot to handle.
Arendt’s argument was a lightning rod: she attended the trial of Adolf Eichmann, lieutenant colonel in the S.S. and chief logistician of the Holocaust, and declared him — in what seemed at the time a grievous and even culpable understatement — guilty of not thinking.
Worse, she leveled an accusatory gaze — one which her opponents accused her of sparing Eichmann himself — at the Jewish leaders in the Judenrate, committees of elders assembled by the Nazis as go-betweens with the Jewish community. The complicity of these leaders, combined with the mindlessness which she sees in Eichmann, make up the crux of her argument about the nature of evil in Eichmann in Jerusalem.
Evil is a troublesome word. Use it and you’re committing to a visceral reaction in your reader. So when Arendt coined the phrase, “the banality of evil” and used it for both the subtitle and last sentence of Eichmann in Jersualem, she was condemning her ideas to overreaction and misprision. But she was also guaranteeing that they would stick in the public imagination as no measured, equivocal term could.
Arendt uses Eichmann’s testimony and cross examination as an opportunity to look evil in the face and think from its — his — perspective. The resulting book alternates from the court in Jerusalem, where the prosecutor attempts to paint Eichmann as the mastermind of the Holocaust, and the narrative of Eichmann’s S.S. career — a career marked mostly by mediocrity, remarkable only for that facility with deportation logistics which secured Eichmann his place in the Nazi hierarchy and in the halls of history’s villains.
Eichmann, as described by Arendt, is a factotum, a non-entity, a man given to cliche and averse to thought, a capable functionary and nothing more. She mocks his grammar, notices the pat phrases which he repeats in his own defense, and marvels that such a man could even be worthy of the attention given him by the world.
Arendt is concerned with debunking the mythos of Eichmann’s monstrous power. The portrait that emerges is of a deflated man, a functionary with no function, being called to account for his involvement in an evil too great for him to engineer or even comprehend.
This does not mean that she is absolving Eichmann of wrong. But Arendt is condemning Eichmann for a different, less dramatic, but more insidious crime: Eichmann is guilty of non-thought, of anti-thought. He condemned himself to complicity with great wrong because of his total lack, or total suppression, of critical faculty.
It is this lack of originality, this absence of the jack-boot glamour one might associate with the S.S., that led Arendt to describe Eichmann’s brand of evil as banal. But the more interesting — and more controversial — conclusion one might draw from Eichmann is not that evil is banal but that evil, of the kind practiced by the Nazis, required mass complicity.
According to Arendt, Eichmann “expected — and received, to a truly extraordinary degree — [the Jews’] cooperation.” She goes so far as to argue that the Final Solution would have been impossible without Jewish cooperation:
“There can be no doubt that without the cooperation of the victims it would hardly have been possible for a few thousand people — most of whom moreover worked in offices — to liquidate many hundreds of thousands of other people,” she says in one of her most controversial passages.
This shift of focus away from Eichmann and toward the alleged collusion of Jewish leaders — in administering ghettos, registering possessions for confiscation and even preparing deportation lists — earned Arendt excoriation from many in the Jewish community.
Yet this portrayal is central to the argument Arendt makes in Eichmann about the nature of evil. Evil, she argues, is not a man in tall, black boots with a skull on his cap. Evil is thoughtless complicity with injustice.
This is powerfully illustrated in the section of the book where she examines the varying results of the Nazis’ attempts to exterminate Jews in occupied countries. Though they were successful in their horrifying end in Austria, Hungary, Poland and Romania — where the local population accepted and cooperated with the deportation of the Jews — they were stymied in Italy, Bulgaria and Denmark, even though each of these countries was either allied with, or occupied by, the German military.
Denmark surrendered to Germany early in 1940, but the population engaged in a systematic campaign of civil resistance, including strikes, work slow-downs and protests, keeping the German authorities from establishing full control over the economy and society. Eventually the German military fully invaded in 1943 and attempted to deport Denmark’s 8,000 Jews.
What resulted, instead of the predictable concentration and deportation that was Eichmann’s modus operandi in the other occupied territories, is remarkable. Nearly every Jewish inhabitant of Denmark was hidden in neighboring Danish homes, and then ferried by night across the North Sea to neutral Sweden. In the end, only a few hundred Danish Jews died in the war years.
This account illustrates the knife-edge between hope and condemnation that Arendt brandishes. As she notes, though the Holocaust “could have happened anywhere, it did not have to happen everywhere.”
Eichmann, in his trial, tried to exonerate himself by playing up the utter hopelessness of resistance to Nazi power. “Everyone thought it was useless to resist” he says in footage included in Von Trotta’s film, “like a drop on a hot stone that evaporates without purpose or success or failure or anything.”
Yet the testimony of the Danes stands as an accusation: resistance was possible and meaningful. Therefore, those that refused to consider resistance are guilty not of a monstrous evil but of a banal one.
In the end, the terrifying yet hopeful conclusion to be drawn from Eichmann in Jerusalem is that evil needs no monsters; it needs us. Evil cannot thrive disembodied. Only the consent of ordinary, thoughtless, working-day banality can give it flesh.
Hannah Arendt opens and closes on Sukowa’s Arendt, alone in her apartment, smoking, a figure of bodily repose contrasted with an active mind. This, we are supposed to see, is a bulwark against evil. The assumption may well be idealistic on both Arendt’s and Von Trotta’s part. But the film nevertheless does us a great service. It graces with dignity the citizen’s task: look at what’s in front of you. Think.