I must confess, I am no Roger Ebert. I don’t write movie reviews for a living. I love movies, and watch lots of them, and often have strong opinions, like most of us. More than that I cannot claim.
But I have been deeply engaged in the life and thought of Hannah Arendt, having recently finished a book on her. And one I thing I can tell you is that at her core she was Jewish and also very American. The problem of Jewish identity was something she wrestled with her whole life, and in a very advanced way. She looked for data everywhere, even among Nazis, and she pulled ideas from everywhere, seeking to invent something new. By identity, I don’t mean just personal identity. I mean the collective identity upon which personal identities stand, and the politics that surround them. The problem for her was how an ethnic identity could be anchored in political institutions, and fostered, and protected, and yet avoids the close-mindedness and intellectual rigidity that seem inherent in nationalism. Thus too much is constantly made out of her apparent "non-Love" for the Jewish people, something which she wrote to Gershom Scholem after the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem, which is also a key scene in this movie. Against the backdrop of her own life, however, the idea that only friends mattered sounded just a bit ironic. Arendt was not exactly a "cultivator of her garden." She spent all her time wrapped up in national and international and cultural politics. Jewish politics was a big part of her life.
So as a fan of both movies and Arendt, you can imagine how much I was looking forward to this movie. Unfortunately, I came out deeply disappointed. It’s not simply that this portrait of Arendt is frozen in amber, and celebrates the misunderstandings of 50 years ago, when Eichmann in Jerusalem had just came out. It’s not simply that it ignores the last 15 years of modern scholarship, which re- excavated her Jewishness in order to make sense of the many things in her writings and actions that otherwise don’t. It’s that it turns her story inside out. She becomes a German woman saving the Jews.
I first saw this film in Germany, and I can testify that Germans love the story when told this way. It also seems a story the director loves to tell. After seeing Arendt twice (once in Munich and once in Tel Aviv), I remembered von Trotta’s 2003 movie Rosenstrasse, and was stunned to realize it’s pretty much the same story: German women saving Jewish men. Rosenstrasse, an interesting footnote in Holocaust and legal history ends in a triumphal march with the women bringing their men home, seeming as if they’d risked life and limb. In Hannah Arendt, a similar scene is her big speech at the New School, where the evil administrators (all very Jewish looking) are shamed into submission by her brilliance, while young students (all pretty and Aryan-looking) applaud enthusiastically. Both are archetypal Hollywood “the world is good again” scenes. And both are fundamental distortions of reality, German fantasies being taken for history.
Perhaps that is the key. Perhaps in this age of Tarantino and Spielberg you are free to do what you like. The projection of historical fantasies is now a subgenre. So shouldn’t the Germans be free to enjoy their fantasies about the Jews, about Israel,about German-Jewish relations, about the meaning of German-Jewish reconciliation, you name it? Sure. But, as I’m sure you have noticed, along with passionate fans, these sorts of films always attract large measures of stinging criticism from (a) scholars peeved at gross inaccuracies, and (b) people who hate this fantasy and want a different one. Since for this film I fall into both groups, you should treat my reactions accordingly.
Hollywood conventions may be most visible in the “right with the world” scenes, but they appear throughout the film. The most Hollywood thing about it is that this is a film lionizing thinkers that doesn’t have any thinking in it. We are supposed to know from the camera and the music and the reaction shots that they are having big thoughts and that everyone is awed by them. But if you actually listen to what is supposed to be passing as big thought, Oy. Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy: frivolous advice about men. Martin Heidegger, who hovers over the movie like a Black Forest deity, appears via flashbacks, pronouncing things like “We think because we are thinking beings.” Young Hannah Arendt looks up, clearly smitten by such banalities. Under Heidegger’s cloud, Hannah Arendt is not only Germanized, but turned into a sentimental fool. Which is the last description anyone has ever reached for who had ever met her.
As for the Eichmann trial that frames and forms the core of the film, all I can say is don’t get me started. Arendt’s New Yorker articles and the book that came out of them were the source of endless misunderstanding, both at the time and still today. This movie not only adds to it, it builds on it. For von Trotta, “the banality of evil” is a way of normalizing the crimes of the Holocaust: anyone could have done them. Eichmann is no antisemite. Banality is the thus deepest insight, the final dismissal of charges. And it’s the Jews who miss it, and the German-speaking woman who has to tell them, for their own good, to give up on this grudge business and with it also realize their own guilt in the destruction of the Jews.
So far, so normal. Everyday Eichmann in Jerusalem is being misinterpreted like this in classrooms around the world. But there is one thing I can’t forgive, which gives the film its final conclusion, and that is the completely fabricated scene at the end where she is threatened by the Mossad. It is nonsensical for several reasons, but worse is how it is composed. It is a “walking my lonely road” scene that chimes with the very first scene of the movie, when Eichmann is walking along in Argentina just before he is grabbed. There, the Mossad men overpower him completely; he is helpless and held up to scorn. Here, she stands up to them and tells them off; they slink away, grumbling impotent before the truth. The arc is completed. The Israelis, wrong from the beginning, have finally been cowed by The Truth About How Wrong They Were, by the German speaking Athena. And for good measure she throws in a sneering crack about how the Jewish nation must have too much money if it sent four of them.
Tarantino never made up anything more inverted.
**Natan Sznaider is a Professor at the Academic College of Tel Aviv-Yaffo. Among his several books are Jewish Memory and the Cosmopolitan Order: Hannah Arendt and the Jewish Condition and two books on the sociology of the Holocaust.He was born and grew up in Germany, and is a regularly commentator in the German press. He lives in Tel Aviv.
I recently received the following excerpted from a long comment from Justine Parkin, a reader and a recent college graduate from the University of California, at Berkeley. Justine wrote:
The question posed in the 2012 Hannah Arendt conference “Does the President matter?” remains on my mind. It is, I think, related to another important question, namely “Does voting matter?” I know and have met several people who have decided not to go to the voting booth this election season. This is of course not an entirely unordinary decision, particularly for people who, like me, live in states like California and who because of the electoral system seem to think that their vote matters little and thus can with an undisturbed conscience decide not to vote. Yet it seems that in the case of this election, there are many, who even if the electoral college were to be replaced by a popular vote, would nevertheless remain firm in their decision not to vote. I admit sometimes that I myself have had a similar conclusion after recognizing little difference between the candidates, thinking everything they say is just “rhetoric” with few direct answers and little real substance and feeling that my vote is merely a decision “between the lesser of two evils.” All of these observations have at times led me to conclude that choosing not to vote may in fact be the more truly political act. And yet, I wanted to probe my choice to inaction further. I wanted to think not only “does voting matter?” but “what if voting did really matter?” In other words, if my participation in politics, or lack thereof, is to be one that is not just a confirmation of what politics is, but rather what politics should be, how would I act? I make no claim that one’s participation in the voting booth is the most important or the only form of political action that we must participate in. To think that merely casting one’s ballot is the ultimate and most necessary political act, I think, is a severe relinquishing of political responsibility. The act of voting is highly limited, not just in the sense of the construction of ballots which provide a particular formatted set of options with a certain illusion of choice, but voting is always a highly individual and closed act, not the “public” or “political” sphere of engaging a plurality of individuals which Arendt praises. Thus not only our political participation but our more essential human identity should stretch beyond the confines of the voting booth. Nevertheless, I wonder if this current form of apathy towards politics is itself a dangerous relinquishing of the human responsibility to thought.
These thoughtful reflections from a young voter—and Justine tells me in a future email that she will indeed vote—are apt reminders on election day of the extraordinary place of voting in our lives.
Quite simply, voting is our national civic exercise, as weak an exercise as it may be. It is the act by which we affirm our belonging to the democratically structured constitutional federal republic that is the United States of America. I have to admit that as cynical as I can be about voting—and having voted primarily in New York, Massachusetts, and California where my Presidential votes have never mattered, (I can be pretty cynical)I get goose bumps every time I line up with my fellow citizens and wait to vote. I remember once waiting hours to vote in a polling station in Berkeley, Ca. It was by far the most inconvenient voting experience of my life, and yet also it was the most meaningful. I stood on line, talking with fellow voters, thinking that we lived in a country where people cared enough about their country to stand in line for hours to cast a ballot that, statistically speaking, meant almost nothing. Weirdly enough, that was one of the days in my life I felt most proud of being an American.
There is no doubt that our political muscles are atrophying. With the loss of town councils we have lost the main educational experience of politics that nourished American democracy for nearly a century. We still have such an institution in law where the jury system teaches citizens to engage meaningfully and solemnly with the fundamental issues of right and wrong. But our political system now largely functions without the participation or engagement of citizens. All we have left for most of us is voting.
And the activity of voting is changing. There are early voting drives and get out the vote marathons. The benign goal is to increase the vote. But one side effect of such efforts is the weakening of the public and communal experience of voting together at polling stations on Election day. The risk is that in making voting so bureaucratic and easy and private and unobtrusive we further expel it as a communal experience and a public ritual.
So Justine is right. Voting is an extraordinarily weak expression of political activity. As Henry David Thoreau wrote, "Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail. In voting, he understood, the "character of the voters is not staked."
Hannah Arendt also saw that voting was a deeply circumscribed approach to politics. She once wrote: “The voting box can hardly be called a public place.” But the voting box can be a public place if and when it is a place where people congregate to vote. I admit it is still a weak space of politics, as the majority of the people who stand on line to vote are firm in their convictions. And yet the public act of standing in line, waiting, mingling with one's fellow citizens, and casting a vote, is a deeply symbolic affirmation of at least one important part of one's responsibility as a citizen. It can also be, as it often is for me, deeply moving.