The movie. Directed by Margarethe von Trotta. It should not be labeled a biopic, as it focuses on only two episodes of Hannah Arendt’s life: of her coverage of the Adolf Eichmann trial—and the controversy that followed the publication of her articles in The New Yorker—and her youthful relationship with Martin Heidegger (though this part, treated in flashbacks, receives lesser attention). It’s a well done film, impeccably depicts the German-Jewish émigré academic-intellectual milieu in New York in the early 1960s, and with a first-rate performance by Barbara Sukowa. The firestorm Arendt’s articles on the Eichmann trail provoked in the American Jewish community is a central theme, with von Trotta clearly taking Arendt’s side (Arendt’s speech at Bard College, where she defended her intellectual integrity against her detractors, is the high point of the film). French reviews have been good. For reviews in English, see the ones by New School sociologist Jeffrey Goldfarb, feminist blogger Mary Creighton, and Spiegel Online. The film opens in the US at the end of the month. [See updates below]
I’ve seen two other films lately on Germany and Nazis. One was ‘Lore’, by Australian director Cate Shortland (the film is in German, though she doesn’t speak it). The film follows the children of a Nazi family—father in the SS, mother a Nazi ideologue—at the end of the war, who are left by their parents to fend for themselves, to make their way on foot to their grandmother’s home near Hamburg, which is a few hundred km to the north from where they set out. The whole movie is of their journey through the countryside—of the children of the Nazi elite reduced to penury and in the sauve qui peut atmosphere of 1945 Germany—, and of their encounter with a young man who passes himself off for a Jew. It’s a good film, particularly for the performance of the remarkable teenage actress Saskia Rosendahl. The pic opened in the US in February and reviews were good.
The other film was ‘Combat Girls’ (in France: ‘Guerrière’; the German title, ‘Kriegerin’, means ‘warrior’), which is about contemporary neo-Nazi skinheads in eastern Germany and with the protag a 20 year-old neo-Nazi woman named Marisa (actress Alina Levshin). The film opens with the neo-Nazi gang marauding through a train physically assaulting anyone of non-European origin. During the scene I asked myself why I was subjecting myself to this, that coming to see the film was maybe a mistake. There is no lower specimen of humanity than neo-Nazis, and having to watch them for an hour and a half on the screen is not pleasant. But it turned out not to be a bad film, as it shows Marisa—who is full of rage and hate—to be a complex character and who is carrying baggage from her difficult family history. And in the link she forms with a teenage refugee from Afghanistan—which at first seemed contrived but finally wasn’t—, she shows herself to have at least an ounce of humanity—and unlike the lowlife reptiles of her neo-Nazi gang, who have none whatever. Reviews of the pic are here and here.
A few days after seeing the film I read this article in Le Monde about a trial of five neo-Nazis that is presently underway in Germany, which is the biggest trial of its kind there since that of the Baader-Meinhof gang in 1977. One learns that 152 murders have been committed by neo-Nazis in Germany, mainly in the east, since reunification in 1990. That’s a lot. Neo-Nazis are marginal in Germany but not as marginal as they should be.
UPDATE: The Jewish Daily Forward has a review essay (May 26th) of ‘Hannah Arendt’ by Beate Sissenich, visiting scholar at New York University’s Center for European and Mediterranean Studies. The concluding paragraph
Anyone with a passing interest in 20th-century social theory will benefit from seeing this film, but no one should expect to receive from it an education in either philosophy or Holocaust history. It succeeds best as a sociology of intellectuals who were grappling with one of the fundamental cataclysms of the 20th century that they themselves had barely escaped — genocide on an industrial scale.
2nd UPDATE: Claude Lanzmann’s film ‘The Last of the Unjust‘, without explicitly setting out to do so, decisively refutes Hannah Arendt’s thesis on the Judenrat and her view of Eichmann.
3rd UPDATE: Richard Wolin, the Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science at the CUNY Graduate Center, has a must-read review essay in the Fall 2014 Jewish Review of Books of Bettina Stangneth’s Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer, which demolishes Hannah Arendt’s thesis on Eichmann and “the banality of evil.” Reduces it to smithereens.
4th UPDATE: Corey Robin, who teaches political science at Brooklyn College, has a lengthy review essay in The Nation (June 1st 2015 issue), “The trials of Hannah Arendt,” on several books on Eichmann and the Eichmann trial. The lede: Many have delighted in judging Hannah Arendt, maybe because they have feared her judgment