Hannah Arendt: battling the banality of evil

A new biopic explores the power of ideas and the courage required to challenge orthodoxy.

Neil Davenport

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Hannah Arendt was a political thinker famous for coining the phrase ‘the banality of evil’ to describe the Nazis’ faceless bureaucrats who planned and carried out industrial-scale genocide. To Arendt, it seemed that evil resided, not in psychopathic monsters, but in unthinking administrators carrying out routine tasks. The phrase evolved from Arendt’s reporting at the 1961 trial in Jerusalem of one of the putative architects of the Holocaust, Adolf Eichmann.

Director Margarethe von Trotta focuses the bulk of Hannah Arendt – a solid, if a little staid, film – on Arendt’s reporting of the trial and the subsequent fallout from her controversial articles for the New Yorker (which later became the book, Eichmann in Jerusalem). As demonstrated in her classic, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt often displayed a dazzling intellect and a talent for unpicking how malignant social forces can develop and engulf normality. She applied this line of thinking to Eichmann and argued that, with the collapse of any moral order in Europe, a paper-thin line developed between victim and persecutor. Shockingly for survivors of the Holocaust, Arendt implied that, as with so many other major figures during Europe’s darkest hour, Jewish leaders had become passive collaborators in their own community’s destruction.

The film dwells on the genesis of her ideas and the explosive impact her articles had afterwards. In the film, the New Yorker receives mountains of hate mail and hate calls. The principals of the New School of Social Research, where Arendt worked, attempt to bar her from lecturing. Neighbours in her swish Manhattan apartment send notes saying ‘die, you Nazi-loving whore’ while lifelong friends denounce and desert her one by one. In the film’s closing scenes, Arendt publicly defends herself by saying that her writing was a serious attempt to understand exactly what happened. She was determined to unearth the unthinkable process of the Holocaust by rational means, even if that meant causing upset along the way.

There are, of course, obvious parallels here with today’s tendency to attempt to silence, gag, denounce and threaten people who express opinions that rankle cultural elites or do not respect identity politics. Arendt was made of stern stuff and her cast-iron courage provides the film with its emotional drama. At its best, Hannah Arendt exposes the whirlwind force of pioneering ideas and how, at crucial moments, they can expose a certain type of academic complacency.

Von Trotta, however, wanted to capture the personal as well as the political, and Arendt’s marriage to Heinrich Blucher is warmly portrayed throughout. Indeed, it’s a striking diversion to see an adult relationship brimming with mutual adoration, support, love and tenderness. And those scenes capture authentically the teasing in-jokes and private language of a close married couple. Equally, the portrayal of the heated debates and merriment she experiences with her close circle of friends, including novelist Mary McCarthy, shakes off Arendt’s austere public face to reveal a generous spirit and dry wit. Elsewhere, Arendt’s habit of chain smoking is so convincing, I’m surprised anti-tobacco killjoys haven’t called for a boycott of the film on public-health grounds.

Far less convincing, however, are the wooden, awkward flashbacks to her time, when she was a 19-year-old university student, as the Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger’s lover. Perhaps by being so unconvincing, Arendt’s reputation is spared the embarrassment occasioned by this strange romance, and her subsequent poor judgement regarding Heidegger’s true motives and his philosophical ideas. Of course, it’s a constant cheap shot to dent somebody’s public reputation by exposing such private blemishes. But a braver and more probing film would attempt to draw out the influence of Heidegger’s anti-mass thinking on Arendt’s own concepts of ‘mass man’, and the dangers of mass society, in The Origins of Totalitarianism.

Whether that, or indeed Arendt’s other philosophical ideas, could be so easily transferred to film without being pedagogic is doubtful. Other films on famous thinkers tend to be documentaries on the subject rather than dramatic adaptations. To bring Arendt alive on screen, the outrage of Manhattan metropolitans provides the film with its tension, heat and beating heart. Here, at least, it works. Hannah Arendt is a fine demonstration of the power of ideas and what it takes to endure the heat their sparks can sometimes generate.

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics/sociology teacher in London.

Watch the trailer for Hannah Arendt

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