Hannah Arendt



Hannah Arendt


Hannah Arendt, Germany (2012), directed by Margarethe von Trotta


The medium of film both enjoys and is burdened by its own relation to time. A biopic has two hours or so to convey, capture, and do justice to its subject’s life. Margarethe von Trotta is a rare filmmaker in this regard, as a number of her films are biopics of impressive, larger than life women. For her the biopic is the quintessential mode of representing “the inner-psychic worlds” of great minds amidst the controversies that defined them. Her works, like Rosa Luxemburg (1986) and Vision (2003), have frequently been pigeon-holed as feminist for its portrayal of strong, independent women forced to navigate between society’s expectations of women within a given, institutional setting vs. the women’s own expectations for themselves. What struck me about von Trotta’s most recent film, Hannah Arendt (2012), is that it embodies an ethos of third-wave feminism in a way her earlier work had not. Here we have a pitch-perfect portrayal of one of the most brilliant and influential thinkers of the 20th century—one who just happens to be a strong, independent women like the other people von Trotta’s films depicted.


The Arendt portrayed here is not a woman that must choose between a life as a philosopher or a mother, nor is this someone who would ever preface her thoughts with the words, “Well, from a woman’s perspective...” This is a woman who, during the height of the Women’s Liberation Movement, had already reached the apex of academia: she was the star pupil of arguably the greatest philosopher of the 20th century (among a group that included numerous intellectual giants); she was the first woman to lecture at Princeton (in 1959) and was elected to both the Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Academy of Arts and Letters during the period this film covers; and to top it all off, she was happily married to a brilliant and successful man who was comfortable and proud of his wife’s enormous achievements over that of his own.  


Admirers of the work of Hannah Arendt, if they are anything like me, will watch Hannah Arendt with a critical eye, constantly checking their knowledge of Arendt’s life and work against the events portrayed in the four years of her life (1960-64) narrated by von Trotta and co-writer Pamela Katz. But the most interesting aspects of the film have less to do with how it renders Hannah Arendt the critic and philosopher—the one we know through her published works—and has more to do with the Arendt enmeshed in complicated relations with the colossal intellects that crisscrossed her life. This is the Hannah Arendt that Barbara Sukowa deftly embodies: brought to life in the everyday interactions with her friend Mary McCarthy, her contemporaries like Hans Jonas, and her editor William Shawn; humanized by the brief intimacies she shares with her beloved husband, Hans Blücher. The film portrays the life of a mind as largely solitary, though not necessarily the lonely business Martin Heidegger warns Arendt of in a flashback to her youth. Despite a story that unfolds through a series of private moments, Hannah Arendt, true to its subject, voices a universal concern.


It would have been audacious for a filmmaker to try and distill Arendt’s meditations on thinking, acting, and the rift that co-distinguishes the two within the course of a two-hour feature film. If you want to know about Arendt's thoughts on Thinking, with a capital T, then pick up some of her essays or books and get to work. In fact, Barbara Sukowa prepared for her role by working extensively with a philosophy tutor, reading everything from Heidegger’s thoughts on thinking to Immanuel Kant’s views on justice. One of the virtues of this film is that it chooses to depict how Arendt thought, through the particulars of what she thought about the trial of Adolph Eichmann and her articulation of the banality of evil. Ultimately, this is a film about a thinker and her actions. It is not a film about thinking proper. And it’s all the better because of it.


Heidegger, in another of the film’s flashbacks to pre-Nazi Germany, informs a young Arendt, “Thinking does not endow us with the power to act.” This point is illustrated in the opening scene: we find Arendt lying down, eyes closed, in deep contemplation. If not for the occasional drag from her cigarette, one would have confused her thinking for sleeping. Yet this is what thinking looks like from the outside looking in. What occupies her mind, we as viewers can never know for sure. Thinking can only refract itself, through its explication in speeches and written works, after crossing over into the realm of action. In and of itself, thinking remains as amorphous as the notion of the individual subject that encloses and anchors it.


The Public Intellectual

Philosophers are rarely remembered, and the few that are have, through their actions, transcended the academy to occupy the rarefied role of the public intellectual. Their actions involve more than the squabbles of academia or the courting of controversy for the sake of publicity, often resulting in social and professional ostracism. These rare individuals take a principled stance against entrenched structures of power and the standards of discourse they police. Through their actions they unleash the reactions of those they criticize and reveal the interstices between the power they wield and the interests they pursue in order to further it. In one scene, following the publication of her series on the Eichmann trial for the New Yorker, Arendt is seen walking along a country road near her home in upstate New York, when she is suddenly confronted by men belonging to the Israeli secret service. They proceed to intimidate and threaten her, warning that her forthcoming book, Eichmann in Jersusalem, will never be translated in Hebrew or Yiddish.1 Anyone who has read the first few chapters of it can see why—she spells out the self-serving motives behind Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s decision to bring Eichmann to Israel for trial. In case you were wondering, it took almost sixty years before a Hebrew translation was published.


Von Trotta, Katz, and Sukowa incorporate just the right lines from reviews, private correspondences, and speeches, finding the right time and person to say them in order to create both cinematic tension and an accurate representation of the immediate and overwhelming backlash she faced after the release of Eichmann in Jerusalem. Arendt faced widespread censure from the hundreds of readers that wrote letters to the editor, fellow New York intellectuals, colleagues she considered her friends, even her own neighbors. Mary McCarthy’s defense of Arendt, published in the Partisan Review, included the lines, “These people get worse as they get older, and in this case it is just a matter of envy. Envy is a monster.” The film captures McCarthy’s rebuttal of her friend’s critics in a satisfying scene, in which she upbraids a group of pretentious New York intellectuals who insist on attacking Arendt as arrogant. Norman Podhoretz’s critique, that “Arendt is all cleverness and no eloquence" (published in Commentary) is tweaked into “That’s Hannah Arendt, all arrogance and no feeling,” and delivered by a New School colleague in response to Arendt's, and the film's, moving, eight-minute final explanation of her work. Barbara Sukowa delivers this speech with an absolute eloquence that honors Arendt’s passion for teaching and lecturing.2 Gershom Scholem, a friend of Arendt and a founding scholar of modern Kabbalah studies, said in an exchange published in Encounter, “In the Jewish tradition there is a concept, hard to define and yet concrete enough, which we know as Ahabath Israel: “Love of the Jewish people... In you, dear Hannah... I find little trace of this.” Arendt’s reply is adapted in a poignant scene where she visits her friend, Zionist leader Kurt Blumenfeld’s deathbed in Jerusalem, and confides to him that she has never loved any group of people and that only love she is capable of is for her friends.3


Beyond the intellectual disputes, some in Arendt’s inner circle harbored resentment on a deep, personal level. The film portrays Hans Jonas as extremely bitter and jealous of the relationship Arendt had with Heidegger. Ironically, in 1926, Heidegger had sent Jonas to Heidelberg, from Marburg, to find Arendt after she had refused to give Heidegger her address—prolonging their relationship for another two years. The film touches on Jonas and Arendt's reactions to Heideggr's infamous 1933 inaugural address, "The Self-Assertion of the German University," after he accepted the position as rector of Freiburg University. Jonas fled Germany that same year, feeling personally betrayed by Heidegger’s decision to join the Nazi party. This leads one to ask, “Why shouldn’t Jonas be bitter about Heidegger’s support of the Nazis and his treatment of Jewish students and colleagues at the University of Freiburg? Why shouldn’t he hold Arendt responsible for forgiving Heidegger and helping him professionally after the war?” Von Trotta had access to an unpublished letter Jonas had written to Arendt in response to Eichmann. Couldn’t von Trotta and Katz have chosen to read or even paraphrase from that letter, rather than having him confront her—whom he sneeringly refers to as “Heidegger's favorite student”—after her final speech, which has him repeating the same, tired critique about her arrogance that others in the film have already stated? Instead of portraying him in such an undignified and impetuous manner, why not choose their alleged reconciliation, which the filmmakers also had a firsthand account of from Jonas’s wife, as one of the concluding scenes of the film? Hans Jonas is a brilliant philosopher whose work has expanded the moral scope of the philosophical tradition he shared with Arendt. He deserves better.


Reconciliation or Condemnation?

Of course, I must address the little elephant in the room from Messkirch: Martin Heidegger. It is certainly understandable and expected for a film on Arendt’s life to touch on her relationship with Heidegger. In many ways, their complicated relationship bears on the larger issues of the complicity of Germans in supporting the Nazi party and on what basis they should be judged: be it forgiveness and reconciliation or punishment and condemnation. The period this film was supposed to capture (1960-1964), however, coincides with a ten-year stretch (1955-1965) of almost no contact or correspondence between them (that is, after their initial reconciliation, in 1950). Perhaps there is something perversely gratifying in seeing him dive face first in Hannah Arendt’s crotch, so the viewer knows that something more than intellectual discourse was consummated between the two. To expand on a point I made earlier, couldn’t von Trotta and Katz have chosen to refer to or draw from Heidegger and Arendt’s available correspondence? I mention this because these are individuals who went to great lengths to express their thoughts in writing, within a specific context. To simply bring up their affair without this context helps feed the trolls that loudly and disgustingly dismiss Arendt as a “Nazi lover.” There must be more subtle ways to bring up these issues, while remaining faithful to the events that actually occurred between 1960-64.


For instance, in 1963, Hannah Arendt received a letter from a 36-year old Jewish man from New York who had begun corresponding with pioneering Nazi filmmaker and propagandist Leni Riefensthal, following her ban from making post-World War II films.4 He writes, “I have spent a year in my fight to justify Riefenstahl’s existence as an artist. I have devoted all my heart, my energy, my time, my resources... and I have failed.” He goes on to state how life has lost meaning for him, and desperately tries to arrange a meeting with Arendt, whom he believes is “probably the only person alive with enough character and humanity” to help him. There is no copy of Arendt’s response currently available to the public, but his quest to help Riefensthal has interesting parallels with Arendt’s role in publishing Heidegger’s later work in English. Does someone’s existence as an artist or a philosopher transcend the situational context of their work? If not, then can we have it both ways: by praising their artistic and philosophical inventiveness, while condemning the totalitarian impulse that permeates them? Perhaps the film could have included a scene where she met with this man and probed her issues through his.


Hannah Arendt aims for, and accomplishes, more than simply adapting Arendt’s relationships into a cinematic narrative. Von Trotta’s decision to use actual footage from the Eichmann trial—her refusal to cast their roles and further dramatize it—shrewdly captures and translates the tone and spirit of Eichmann in Jerusalem for the screen. Arendt goes to great lengths to write against a collective need for the trial to represent anything larger than the actions of Adolf Eichmann, or for it to deliver an overarching sense of closure or retribution. As she says in the opening pages, “On trial are his deeds, not the suffering of the Jews, not the German people or mankind, not even anti-Semitism or racism.” For Arendt, a number of forces had coalesced in the interest of doing exactly the opposite. Even the architecture of the courthouse, Beth Ha’am, is (according to Arendt) more like that of a theater, “complete with orchestra and gallery, with proscenium and stage, and even side doors for the actors entrance.” In the book’s chapter on court evidence and witnesses, Arendt described the outlandishness of one of the witnesses named K-Zetnik, or “Concentration Camper” in Yiddish. After taking the stand, he proceeds to go on a rant about cosmology and crucifixion, but faints right when the prosecution cuts him off to ask him questions. Von Trotta’s decision to show the actual courtroom footage of this man fainting, without providing the context of who he was, transforms the intended dramatic effect without excluding it from her depiction of the trial.


However, it is the name and focus of the first chapter of Eichmann in Jerusalem, “The House of Justice,” that does the most in resisting the previously discussed pretentions of who and what are actually on trial. The three presiding judges—all German-born—seem like the only people in the courtroom Arendt respects, as she criticized everyone from Ben Gurion (the “invisible stage manager” of the trial), to the Attorney General of Israel, Gideon Hausner (Ben Gurion’s mouthpiece); even the court translators get blasted. She praises the judges’ cool, stoic demeanor in the face of a media frenzy that expects grandstanding; they are literally and figuratively elevated from the stage, presiding before their audience while shirking the theatricality they oversee. Arendt points out that their “sober and intense attention” was able to elicit more from Eichmann in two and a half short sessions of questioning than the prosecution was able to do in seventeen. In a statement that echoes Kant’s privileging of reason in the role of moral judgments, only they prevented the trial from degenerating into a “rudderless ship tossed about on the waves.”


This introductory chapter was written and structured in a way that placed the quest for justice above everything else, even above and before the proceeding discussion on Eichmann. Arendt makes a controversial point at the end of the chapter to illustrate what happens when the trial tries to shift its singular focus from the crimes of Eichmann to the broader focus of anti-Semitism throughout history. She quotes the prosecutor, as he seems to gloatingly state, “Here the intention was to destroy the Jewish people and the objective was not reached.” Arendt highlights how his interpretation of history ironically operates along the same logic employed by The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which were fabricated by others as justification for the extermination of Jews, and which identifies the fate of the Jewish people as the motive force of history. The film hardly spends any time portraying the actual trial, and misses out on these very features that Arendt goes to great lengths to emphasize. Still, the film introduces a number of the ideas in Eichmann in Jerusalem outside the context of the trial: through Arendt’s intimate conversations with Mary McCarthy; her reminiscing with friends over champagne in the Manhattan apartment Arendt shared with her husband, Heinrich Blücher; and particularly in the eight-minute apologia she delivers before her students and colleagues.


Adolf Eichmann faces his judges in Jerusalem​​​


The Banality of Evil

The ten pages on the Jewish Councils that presided over the Eastern European ghettos is one part of Eichmann in Jerusalem the film explicitly addresses. For her Jewish critics, these pages constituted the most reprehensible claim made in the entire book. Arendt stated, “To a Jew this role of the Jewish leaders in the destruction of their own people is undoubtedly the darkest chapter of the whole dark story.” That Arendt was subjected to the condemnation of many Jews served as a bitter confirmation of her assessment on the ability of others to question and confront the authority of their leaders—be they the Nazis or the Judenräte. To me, however, the most disappointing aspect of this episode is not that Arendt overstated the extent of the Jewish Councils in helping to facilitate the death of six million Jews; certainly, Arendt anticipated that fifty years of historical research would provide numerous counter-examples. No, the most disappointing part is that she does not extend her thesis on the banality of evil to include the Jewish leaders. Arendt was thereby able to heap scorn and contempt on them in a way that her analysis had prevented her from speaking about Eichmann in a similar manner.


The banality of evil operates along the same lines of Elie Wiesel’s quotation, “The opposite of love is not hate. It’s indifference.”5 As Arendt stated in the film, “Once the trains were transported, [Eichmann] felt his work was done.” And what the film ingeniously offers to the discussion is a point Arendt made, at the end, about the difference between the radical and the extreme: “Only good can be profound and radical.” Evil is only extreme and overwhelmingly banal. To do good takes courage to act against the extremely distorted dynamics that are endemic to modern society. Modernity’s greatest evils transform innovation into industries—and action into labor—integrating the functions they demand and the people they employ into a framework that absolves its constituents from the greater picture. When our conditioning has been conditioned, thinking by ourselves, and yet for the sake of others, is the only way to salvage our human condition from its encroachment by an artificially manufactured, and yet concretely enforced, sense of mass society. To submit to the creeping banality of bureaucratization forecloses the possibility of thinking. And this, ultimately, is Arendt’s judgment of Eichmann: he understood, but he did not think.


The Responsibility to Think

In the film’s climactic speech, Arendt concluded, “The manifestation of the wind of thought is not knowledge but the ability to tell right from wrong, beautiful from ugly.” Arendt’s final work, The Life of The Mind, largely focuses on this difference between knowing and thinking. Knowing sweeps along the movements it attempts to grasp and indexes them: be they as broad as social movements and public opinion or as specified as the cause and effect of the phenomenon in question. Knowing tells you what is, in relation to how you came to know it. Thinking, on the other hand, moves beyond knowing. It reconciles how our Being relates to the advent of our knowledge and understanding of a world that is now transformed in its wake. It does more than ground our impersonal knowledge to our place in the world. It authenticates our Being-in-the-World: hitching the tiny individuating spark we each carry inside us to the possibility for action it discloses to our conscience. For Arendt, thinking and judging are two sides of the same coin. And this is precisely why she was vilified as arrogant. In an era that increasingly tries to cast us through the lens of mass society and popular culture, Arendt steadfastly held the people she judged to the same standard that validated her right to judge them. For they, just like her, were also individuals with a responsibility to their conscience: that is, to think through the repercussions of their own actions, especially when questioning them would become dangerous.


This is why it remains difficult for scholars to characterize Arendt as a liberal or a conservative. When she started explicating these ideas in the early Fifties, the social sciences were advancing their ability to know through new methods in statistical analysis. Conversely, the field of Political Philosophy—with its modernist notion of progress and enlightenment—was still reeling from the unprecedented horrors brought on by totalitarianism and the two world wars. The social scientists indexed things to numbers in order to highlight trends, while Arendt was indexing the essential dynamics of foregone epochs to the one we occupy in the present. For example, in The Human Condition, Arendt explored the categories of labor, work, and action vis-à-vis the differences in the private and the public spheres of Ancient Greece and the Modern West. This perplexed a number of readers and critics, who started reading a book that described how modern technology, like airplanes and spaceships, had completely transformed mankind’s relationship to Earth, only to continue into an extended analysis of a range of Ancient Greek and Latin philosophers whose thought still bears on our present human condition.


Arendt always had her eye on the bigger picture, drawing from the most fundamental and enduring ideas of the past. Her work figures outside the current, mainstream trends of academic scholarship: the self-professionalization through the citing of other professors; the incessant proliferation of esoteric jargon that further insulates one sub-discipline from another; and the production of scholarship that adds to the literature without adequately drawing on, and consolidating from, the work that has already been said and done. As she said in her essay, “On Violence:” “The ceaseless, senseless demand for original scholarship in a number of fields, where only erudition is now possible, has led either to sheer irrelevancy, the famous knowing of more and more about less and less, or to the development of a pseudo-scholarship which actually destroys its object of scholarship, like that of living, is to move beyond knowing by daring to think about what you know hopefully, people will see this film and question how their own actions are complicit in the suffering that surrounds them, rather than pointing their fingers at someone else when the grotesque extremity of the situation, in which we are already entangled, is forced into the light.



  • 1. According to Roger Berkowitz’s review of Hannah Arendt in The Paris Review, “Most startling, perhaps, is von Trotta’s re-imagining of the visit by Siegfried Moses, a friend of Arendt’s from her days working in the German Zionist Organization and a member of the Israeli government, who visited her in Switzerland to ask her to withhold publication of Eichmann in Jerusalemin Israel. This request is presented as a threatening ambush instead of the arranged meeting between friends that it was, suggesting a significantly more organized animus by the Israeli state than was the case.”
  • 2. In the same essay, Podhoretz embarrassingly tries to force an artificial dichotomy between Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man along the same lines, which is “all eloquence, [with] nothing clever in the way he tells his story of the Negro in America. [...] The only sin of the victims is their powerlessness, the only guilt is that of the oppressors.” How someone can make it to the second chapter of the book, and still make such a preposterous claim is beyond me, but this is the same man who claimed, "George W. Bush (is) a man who knows evil when he sees it and who has demonstrated an unfailingly courageous willingness to endure vilification and contumely in setting his face against it." How someone can claim that real evil is the threat of terrorism posed by transnational Islamofascists, while the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians bombed over a faulty hunch are as necessary as the Allied bombings of WWII, however, are relevant to the themes of this review.
  • 3. These three publications, and more, are discussed in Michael Ezra’s “The Eichmann Polemics: Hannah Arendt and her critics.”
  • 4. This letter can be accessed at the Library of Congress’ website (under Adolf Eichmann File: Correspondence: Misc: A-C: images 8-12), which provides a number of Hannah Arendt’s documents available to the public. The critical letter featured in the film can also be accessed under the same section, image 4: http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/arendthtml/series.html.
  • 5. Elie Wiesel was also present at the Eichmann trial as a reporter, and his essay “A Plea For The Dead” was written as a critical response to Arendt’s report.
Hannah Arendt, Philosophy