In 1963, The New Yorker published five articles on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi chief of Bureau IV-B-4, a Gestapo division in charge of “Jewish Affairs.” Written by political thinker and Jewish activist Hannah Arendt, the articles and ensuing book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, unleashed what Irving Howe called a “civil war” among New York intellectuals. While some reviews cursed Arendt as a self-hating Jew and Nazi lover, the Jewish Daily Forward accusing her of “polemical vulgarity,” Robert Lowell termed her portrayal of Eichmann a “masterpiece,” and Bruno Bettelheim said it was the best protection against “dehumanizing totalitarianism.” Across the city, Arendt’s friends chose sides. When Dissent sponsored a meeting at the Hotel Diplomat, a crowd gathered to shout down Alfred Kazin and Raul Hilberg—then the world’s preeminent Holocaust scholar—for defending Arendt, while in The Partisan Review Lionel Abel opined that Eichmann “comes off so much better in [Arendt’s] book than do his victims.”
In the years since that fiery time, Eichmann in Jerusalem has remained something to condemn or defend rather than a book to be read and understood. I therefore had some fears when I heard that German director Margarethe von Trotta was making a film about Arendt’s coverage of the trial. But Hannah Arendt accomplishes something rare in any biopic and unheard of in a half century of critical hyperbole over all things Arendt: it actually brings Arendt’s work back into believable—and accessible—focus.
The movie opens with two wordless scenes. The first depicts the Mossad’s abduction of Eichmann. The second follows a silent Hannah Arendt as she lights, and then smokes, a cigarette. Around her, all is darkness, and for a full two minutes, we watch her smoke. Played with passionate intensity by Barbara Sukowa (who won a Lola, the German Oscar), Arendt ambles. She lies down. She inhales. But above all, we see the cigarette’s ash flare brilliantly in the dark. Hannah Arendt, we are to understand, is thinking.
Although Arendt’s work follows numerous byways, one theme is clear: in modern bureaucratic societies, human evil originates from a failure not of goodness but of thinking. When Arendt addresses Eichmann’s claims that he had “never acted from base motives,” and “never had any inclination to kill anybody … had never hated Jews,” she writes that they are “difficult, though not altogether impossible, to believe.” And yet, Arendt insists “Eichmann was not Iago and not Macbeth”—no villain doing evil out of villainy. Eichmann boasted of citizenly action, of conscientiously obeying the law and doing his duty—with excellence recognized by his superiors. On the stand, speaking in clichés and bureaucratic jargon, he went so far as to suggest he was a Zionist who “had saved hundreds of thousands of Jews.” Arendt was struck by both the immensity of Eichmann’s crimes and the ordinariness of the man.
She was astonished that perhaps the most egregious crime in history was administered not by panting sociopaths but by unthinking buffoons. This is what Arendt means by her famous and famously misunderstood dictum, “the banality of evil.” It is one thing to kill your aunt out of malice; crimes can be committed from barbarous motives. But the distance separating malicious murder from administrative genocide is immeasurable. Arendt’s “banality” suggests that the sacrifice of common-sense aversion to evil and authoritarian obedience cannot happen absent thoughtless people like Eichmann.
The Eichmann trial inspired the psychologist Stanley Milgram to famously conduct experiments in which residents of New Haven were asked to assist researchers in teaching students by administering what they thought were painful—and potentially lethal—electric shocks to students who gave wrong answers. The assistants largely did as they were instructed. Milgram concluded that most people will obey authority even when commands violate their deepest convictions; obedience, he argued, does not entail support.
Arendt did not share this view; she insisted that obedience involves responsibility. She was shocked that her critics assumed that thoughtful people would act as Eichmann had. She worried experiments like Milgram’s would normalize moral weakness. Indeed, she saw the angry reaction to her book—her critics’ insistence on seeing Eichmann as a monster—as proof that they feared that they too lacked the moral independence and the ability to think that would allow them to resist authority.
Struck by the danger of thoughtlessness, Arendt spent her life thinking about thinking. Could thinking, she asked, save us from the willingness of many, if not most, people to participate in bureaucratically regulated evil like the administrative extermination of six million Jews? Thinking, as Arendt imagines it, erects obstacles to oversimplifications, clichés, and conventions. Only thinking, Arendt argued, has the potential to remind us of our human dignity and free us to resist our servility. Such thinking, in Arendt’s view, cannot be taught: it can only be exemplified. We cannot learn thinking through catechism or study. We learn thinking only through experience, when we are inspired by those whose thinking enthralls us—when we encounter someone who stands apart from the crowd.
Von Trotta manages to make that apartness manifest in Hannah Arendt. In the pressroom, Arendt watches witness after witness testify to the horrors of the Holocaust, von Trotta using powerful footage from the real trial. Arendt is visually moved, eyes wide, chin set on her hands, transfixed in tearless empathy. After one witness faints—a Mr. Dinoor who was upset after he was asked to stop speaking about his own theories concerning astrology and crucifixion—Arendt leaves the courtroom and weaves through Israelis frozen, rapt to their radios, carried away by emotional stories that, as Arendt will charge, have nothing to do with the effort to do justice to the man on trial. What others call aloofness and coldness is here evidence of Arendt’s moral courage, her freedom from convention, and her intensely philosophical focus.
The importance of Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem is not to be found simply in the rightness or wrongness of her conclusions about Adolf Eichmann. Her book has power because of the original force of Arendt’s thinking. The book is a work of judgment in connection to a trial—the process by which we come to terms with one man’s evil deeds. And that focus on process—the German for trial is der Process—is the daring gambit of Hannah Arendt, co-written by von Trotta and Pam Katz: to engage head-on the impossible task of putting thinking onscreen.
In one flashback with her teacher and former lover Martin Heidegger, Heidegger tells Arendt, “thinking is a lonely business.” Outside of a few intimates, Arendt is alone throughout the film, accompanied by nothing and no one but her thoughts and her ever-present cigarette. There is a danger that Arendt’s cigarette could become an empty cipher, an obvious symbol. Instead, it lingers there, pulsing with Arendt’s breath, as she remains silent, listening. It is her silent intensity, throughout the film, that strikes the viewer, propels us to think with Arendt about what she is observing and its implications. The audience is thus transformed, moving from observing Arendt to thinking with her. And when Arendt at the end becomes a speaker, her deliberations done, the film climaxes in her speech to students at a small liberal arts college. The seven-minute long monologue, a sort of closing argument in this film’s long accumulation of evidence, is gripping. Arendt concludes: “This inability to think created the possibility for many ordinary men to commit evil deeds on a gigantic scale, the like of which had never been seen before. The manifestation of the wind of thought is not knowledge but the ability to tell right from wrong, beautiful from ugly. And I hope that thinking gives people the strength to prevent catastrophes in these rare moments when the chips are down.” The full speech is likely the greatest articulation of the importance of thinking that will ever be presented in a film.
The thinking Arendt demands requires pride, a feeling of difference between oneself and others—even a kind of arrogance, an arrogance that von Trotta seizes on screen. The film honestly addresses this characteristic of Arendt and of thinking itself, and does not shirk from Arendt’s belief that a confidence in one’s own distinctiveness is necessary for character. Like Emerson’s, Arendt’s writing celebrates self-reliance. For her, our democratic desire for equality—to be the same as others and to not judge them—compounds the problem of thoughtlessness.
Of course, given the complexities of the factual record, there are fictions and oversights one can complain about in the film. Words written by Gershom Scholem are spoken by Kurt Blumenfeld. More problematic is the fact that not one Jewish character in the film defends Arendt, which gives the false impression that all Jewish intellectuals were blinded to her insights. 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 Jerusalem in 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.
The dramatic liberties von Trotta takes are easily forgivable considering her overall success in dramatizing the activity of thinking. To make a film about a thinker is a challenge; to do so in a way that is accessible and gripping is a triumph. Hannah Arendt herself might have been surprised to learn that after fifty years of deadening controversy, it is a film that promises to provoke the serious public debate she sought in publishing her book. Although originally entitled The Controversy, von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt would be more appropriately (if less commercially) entitled The Most Sophisticated Reading Yet of Arendt’s Philosophy to Reach the Mainstream—an astonishing thought indeed.
Roger Berkowitz is academic director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College, where he is associate professor of politics, philosophy, and human rights. He is editor of HA: The Journal of the Hannah Arendt Center, and his books include the edited volume Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics.