Film Review - Hannah Arendt

by Dr. Jessica Datema

Hannah Arendt is an impossible film about an impossible trial that demonstrates the impossibility of “understanding” or “explaining” the Holocaust.

“It was perhaps the bitter experience of life’s tricks that prepared her (rather late…) for being seized by the grande passion which indeed is no less rare than a chef-d’oeuvre. Storytelling, at any rate, is what in the end made her wise—and incidentally, not a ‘witch’ ‘siren,’ or ‘sibyl’, as her entourage admiringly thought” (Arendt, Men in Dark Times, p. 109).

“Worlds are made wherever those decisions of our history … are taken up and abandoned by us, go unrecognized and are rediscovered by new inquiry, there the ‘world worlds.” Heidegger, “Origin of the Work of Art. “

Margarethe von Trotta’s film Hannah Arendt focuses on the controversies that resurfaced when Arendt covered the trial of Adolf Eichmann. After experiencing the Holocaust first hand, Arendt was curious to finally study a Nazi, “in zie flesh.” She accepted the job of writing about the Adolf Eichmann trial for The New Yorker in 1961 The film is not comprehensive and reduces Arendt’s major philosophical works to one tiny chapter. Still, the film Hannah Arendt is worthwhile, in particular, because it shows the difficulties of representing trauma in history and biography.

Hannah Arendt rarely spoke about her own Holocaust experience in public. As a biopic, the film explores the private realm that Arendt believed was separate from public action and politics. Arendt thought it indulgent or inappropriate to speak of personal suffering. She believed one is much more opaque to oneself than to others. Since storytellers can be less overtly political they are better biographers than politicians in preserving history. In this sense, the film reexamines history through the story of Hannah Arendt. It draws out the deep personal pains and friendships that the philosopher herself refused to discuss.

In agreeing to make Hannah Arendt, the filmmaker engages in an act of friendship and aims to show what Arendt could not say. One feminist critic explains how for Arendt the creative work of biography is an act of friendship (Minnich 287-305). The film shows that otherness of the subject that Arendt says, “appears so clearly and unmistakably to others [but] remains hidden to the person themselves” (Human Condition, 179). Arendt was uncomfortable about intrusions into her own personal life, so a filmmaker, Von Trotta took up the task.

Hannah Arendt is also a depiction of Arendt’s deep abiding friendships with women, shown in her ties with Mary McCarthy and Lotte Köhler. Lotte was her assistant and eventually became her literary executor. Lotte helps with handling the execution and subsequent criticism of Arendt’s article. She also reminds her mentor in the film that, “God gave us family, but thank God we can choose our own friends.” This advice proves helpful after Arendt’s “frienemies’” reactions to her New Yorker piece.

The famous novelist Mary McCarthy had a productive intellectual friendship with Arendt, as recorded in their correspondence. When Arendt’s Eichmann piece was released, McCarthy mightily defended her friend against the critics. The film depicts McCarthy and Arendt as an odd couple. McCarthy embodies an “American” literary lewdness that contrasts with Arendt as a dignified European intellectual. Arendt corrects Mary’s German and Mary corrects Arendt’s English in several funny scenes including one where Arendt chides McCarthy: “We Germans don’t marry all our lovers.” Ultimately, these differences were insignificant since Arendt and McCarthy bonded, their tie being that they were both went in and out of fashion with New York intellectuals. McCarthy published The Group the same year Arendt published Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963). These two very different books caused very similar levels of fuss in the literary and intellectual worlds. Both women felt betrayed by unfriendly reviews of publications run by people they considered allies.

A friend in the German television industry suggested to Von Trotta that she make a biopic on Arendt. For ten years Von Trotta refused until she was able to find some Gegner, or dramatic antagonist for Arendt. Hannah Arendt is not just a film about a writer and philosopher. Its action centers on the Eichmann trail, but also brings up Arendt’s own Holocaust experience. Originally, the director wanted to call the film The Controversy but was persuaded otherwise (Weigel). As it stands, the title is a misnomer. All the hesitancies and delays in making the film go with the difficulties inherent in the representation of trauma.

The film is set in New York in the early 1960s after Arendt’s assimilation when she is supposedly peacefully situated in an upper West Side apartment. The slightly shabby clutter of her apartment signals the proximity of an unassimilated traumatic history. Stockpiles of paper and books surround her desk where two key photographs of Martin Heidegger and Heinrich Blücher reside. Their juxtaposition indicates that Arendt is not fully settled in. This unsettledness allows her to remember and consider issues of being an exile upon thought. The side by side photos of Blücher— as her current husband— and Heidegger as her former lover—harken back to what Sigmund Freud calls, an “Other time and place.”

Like Freud, Arendt believed her theoretical works indirectly speak about life. Arendt’s refusal of autobiography sounds strikingly like Freud’s: “The public has no claim to learn any more of my personal affairs—my struggles, my disappointments, and my successes. I have in any case been more open and frank in some of my writings (such as The Interpretation of Dreams and The Psychology of Everyday Life) than people usually are who describe their lives for their contemporaries or for posterity.” (Freud, 83-84). Arendt stresses the separation and connection of the public and private in a way that’s similar to Freud’s idea of the conscious and unconscious realms. Both admit the overlap of one realm into the other, but are explained differently. Arendt believed the overlap (of private into public) occurs through a creative action that produces something politically new that she calls an event of natality.

While Arendt acknowledges that past experience may emerge in her writing, she never actually uses the word “trauma.” Her views of violence are contradictory due to the disavowal of trauma in her own life and work. “Crimes against humanity” is the closest she gets to acknowledging trauma in relation to genocide (we note: not as personal). Arendt did theorize violence and held a tiered view of it as begetting either silence or action depending upon its origin. In On Violence she links violence with power as a vehicle of silencing. Yet with the Eichmann trial— as with any testimony of trauma— she is engaged in a paradoxical attempt to re-present Nazi violence.

Some of Arendt’s works seems to suggest that violence can be sublimated through political or aesthetic action. Action is a way of working through private trauma by “making” it into a public discourse. Arendt indicates this happening in her own work in an unusual 1966 retrospective statement on the Origins of Totalitarianism:

With the defeat of Nazi Germany part of the story had come to an end. This seemed the first appropriate moment to try to tell and understand what happened… Still in grief and sorrow, and hence with a tendency to lament, but no longer in speechless outrage and impotent horror. It was, at any rate, the first possible moment to articulate and to elaborate the question with which my generation had been forced to live for the better part of its life: What happened? Why did it happen? How could it have happened? (preface to part three, The Origins of Totalitarianism).

The film shows Arendt caught up in the impossibility of representing any Nazi Germany experience.

Covering the Eichmann trial allows Arendt to engage in a displaced sublimation. Cathy Caruth describes how in trauma there is a delay between experience and knowing. This delay also occurs in Arendt’s view as a gap between action and understanding, such that the latter only follows (après coup) from the former. Arendt’s view of understanding is like “the traumatic event, it is not experienced as it occurs. It is only fully evident only after the fact or as displaced into an Other place, an Other time” (Trauma, Explorations in Memory, 8.). Arendt’s coverage of the Eichmann trail is an exposure to real historic events that could not be understood as they occurred.

Seyla Benhabib gives a larger overview than the film for interpreting Arendt’s own political engagements. She divides Arendt’s life into three political phases. The first, during 1926 to 1941, Arendt was a student in Heidelberg and met Kurt Blumenfeld, the German Zionist leader. She was deeply impressed by him and began collaboratively documenting anti-Semitism and the exclusion of Jews from German professional associations. In the 1930s when the Gestapo arrested Arendt, she was forced to leave Germany and escaped with her mother to Paris.

During the second phase of Arendt’s political life (1941-1960s), she immigrated with her second husband, Heinrich Blücher, to New York in 1941. During the early 1940s, Arendt was also actively working on Jewish issues as a writer in New York. Hannah and Heinrich became renowned intellectuals, covering current events such as Israel and Palestine. During this period Arendt worked with Martin Buber to conceive of something she referred to as the “Jewish homeland.” Their utopian vision was for a federation of Jewish people who would elect councils to guide and govern Jews at the United Nations. When some Zionists believed the “homeland” idea was too utopian, Arendt’s disputes with them started to build.

The third political phase started in the 1960s when Arendt enjoyed what Benhabib calls ”citizenship in a new republic” (Thinking in Dark Times, 56). Celebrating the sixties in America, Arendt called the student revolution a “new beginning.” Civil rights movements, student protests, and kibbutzim settlements all constituted a moment of “natality” in politics (On Violence 17-19). This is perhaps why she felt strong enough to revisit the subject by covering the Eichmann trail during this period.

It is interesting to note that Arendt also wrote On Revolution in the sixties when she wrote Eichmann in Jerusalem. With these works, Arendt initiated new discourse on revolution, violence, and genocide. Both texts initiated seismic shifts in cultural discourse, which are still trenchant. The film bookmarks these shifts—and their relation to our own political moment—by juxtaposing Arendt’s real life and history.

Arendt’s “involvement” in Zionism, particularly during the early period did not mitigate the criticism during the Eichmann controversy. Von Trotta shows Arendt traveling to Jerusalem for the trial like a survivor returning to the scene of a crime. She stays with her now old friend Kurt Blumenfeld, but it is immediately apparent they aren’t getting along. His family teases Arendt about not having children. Still, these gibes are serious and foreshadow forthcoming criticism of Eichmann in Jerusalem.

Arendt is silent in most of the trial scenes. The court case opens with a rousing speech about the dead of Auschwitz in Yiddish. The speech is heavily dramatic and a kind of re-inauguration moment for Israel. Testimonies are not about Eichmann but history in general. Arendt’s analysis of Eichmann’s “not thinking” offends Israelis who want to characterize him as a Faust, Mephisto, or der Teufel—radically evil. Ironically, with Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt’s own view of evil as banal changes from her earlier view of it as radical in On Totalitarianism. Her reconsideration of genocide through Eichmann inflames Jewish leaders, including her friend Kurt Blumenfeld, who eventually rejects Arendt on his deathbed.

Criticism of Arendt’s Eichmann piece called her insensitive or a “talking head.” These critics stressed her identity as a Jew, and perhaps as an arrogant woman, but choose to overlook her identity as a trained philosopher. The uproar following Arendt’s report on Eichmann was motivated to a great extent by a sense of racial and ethnic betrayal more than philosophical disagreement. Her connection to other “white male philosophers“ didn’t help.

The film depicts Hans Jonas as a ringleader of the critics. He had been Arendt’s competitor since attending university with her in Heidelberg. At University, he observed that Arendt was “Heidegger’s favorite.” Jonas studied with the same professors without the same favor but finally received his Doctor of Philosophy at Marburg. Jonas also immigrates to American and ended up being a colleague of Arendt at the New School. He— like many other European Jewish intellectual refugees—transports the European grievances into America. In truth, the criticism of Arendt as “lacking emotion” is not all wrong. This lack of emotion makes her a strong philosopher but is also a mask that marks her past trauma.

The mask of Arendt’s Holocaust experience is exposed a bit in the film. In one scene where Arendt is lecturing, a student asks if she was ever in the Nazi camps. Arendt gives a harrowing description of how the French treated her and other German-Jewish refugees at a Nazi detention camp (lager) named Gurs in France. In this place, she said, the women became hopeless and stopped washing themselves. Moreover, one evening Arendt herself lost all hope. She describes how it was raining all day and their straw mats for sleeping were disintegrating. Arendt says she was at this point Sehr Müde (so tired), a euphemism for suicide. The film shows Arendt talking instead of showing any actual images of women in the camps. The pain of Arendt’s situation is magnified by the recollection juxtaposed with her current life.

The classroom scene relates to another where she discusses Gur with her husband. Arendt tells Blücher her survival only came from imagining his rescue. The film shows Arendt recalling herself as a younger woman making the decision not to die. It conveys her vulnerability in considering suicide but ultimate deciding not to, unlike Walter Benjamin and so many of her other European colleagues. The film is a reminder that Arendt and many other intellectuals did not just write about genocide, they were also its victims and survivors.

The philosopher explains to the class how she barely escaped with Blücher to America. Another student asked: Professor, what did you think of America when you first arrived? Arendt enthusiastically responds that she thought it was “Paradise” in an unusual display of filmic patriotism. This scene seems almost disingenuous in its nationalism until one considers the eyes of a German-Jewish intellectual refugee coming from European genocide.

As a New York film, Hannah Arendt is a reminder that America, and especially New York City, was once a safe haven and capital for intellectual refugees. The scene that portrays America as “paradise” contrasts with current disillusioned views that come from restrictions on immigration and assimilation. It also brings up how supposedly safe Western or Catholic countries (with the Pope’s permission) gave the Nazis passage. The movie begins with Eichmann getting caught in South America, after he followed a “rat line” from Genoa to Buenos Aires.

Arendt’s New Yorker article puts Holocaust discourse on the map in the United States. Before this piece, what happened to Jews during Nazi Germany was not a matter of general public discourse. Moreover, in initiating the dialogue, Arendt suffered from a re-traumatizing herself. Hannah Arendt is an impossible film about an impossible trial that demonstrates the impossibility of “understanding” or “explaining” the Holocaust. Still, Arendt’s view was that action precedes understanding. Thus she felt it her responsibility to act, even if she could not envision all the outcomes of an Eichmann engagement.

In addition to the first hand experience, Hannah Arendt displays the philosopher’s expert ability to capture a Zeitgeist. Arendt seizes on Eichmann’s description of himself as a “rump roast” being grilled up on charges to make a connection between genocide and malaise. Actual footage shows the Nazi sitting in a glass cage like a ghost, bored and unconcerned. In portraying Eichmann as antagonist, the film refuses to pit Arendt up against an “evil” Nazi. As the director mentions in an interview: “I never had any thought of putting him up on screen, embodied by an actor, so people could say, ‘Wow, what a performance!” (Weigel, 3) Barbara Sukowa plays Arendt as up against an ideology and history, not another actor. The film’s use of documentary footage underscores Arendt’s battle with ideology as the real “glass cage” of history.

In covering Eichmann, Arendt does not “explain” a single person. Instead, she considers the whole cultural philosophy out of which the Nazi is born, and asks how someone like him could even exist. Eichmann’s unconcern is related to what Heidegger calls ontological care— in German Sorge. This care constitutes the very core of our being in the world as activated. Since he followed orders without concern for or against the Jews, Eichmann is part of a modern corporate culture of malaise. Arendt diagnoses him as one of a “rump roast” generation of unconcerned workers who just “follows orders.”

Several flashback scenes with depict Arendt’s relationship with Heidegger and his influential philosophy of Denken. She connects Eichmann and his banal type of evil to a lack of thought rooted in unconcern. Arendt’s writing begins to flow after flashbacks, not only to Heidegger, but also to the trial. In one she sits on a velvet chaise lounge smoking and recalls the judge asks Eichmann: “Are you an idiot are you an imbecile?” In Eichmann’s responses, Arendt sees no trace of Satanic greatness. He was not even an imbecile. He was simply unable to think. Arendt says it is sheer thoughtlessness, which is not the same as stupidity, which leads to great evil.

Instead of viewing the human as a thinking substance (res extensa) Arendt views thinking as a performative act. It is a way of engaging with, or caring for, the world. This view comes from Heidegger’s ontology of denken, and the philosophical question, “What does it mean to be as thinking?” Denken presupposes the infinitive “to be” as the underlying question. It revises such that thinking isn’t reducible to any object or a material body. Rather, it is an activity of being that activates humanity itself. The film shows how Arendt grapples with a politics of care in her own lifetime even while Heidegger refused. It also gives a glimpse of what it would be like to have a trusted professor turn into a professing Nazi.

The Heidegger relationship is an unspoken trauma that frames Arendt’s life and career. It is another topic about which she refused to speak. Scenes with Heidegger are imagined in the film as reveries. From classroom to bedroom, the couple is portrayed as a bit clichéd. Still, it is difficult to know if this dullness is due to Arendt’s time with Heidegger being a more “childish” moment, or if it is a feature of the film itself. The film depicts Heidegger’s betrayal of Arendt as a larger betrayal of academia, and particularly German academia. Scenes of the philosophers walking in Europe show the stakes of intellectuals deciding to immigrate or stay.

While Arendt incorporates Heidegger’s philosophy into her public work, what happened with him privately remains unspoken. Mary McCarthy tries to get Arendt to speak of Heidegger in a scene when she visits Arendt in the country. Their friendship reveals the depth and limits of dialogue itself. At one point playing pool, McCarthy presses Arendt on Heidegger with the game: “Fill in the blank Heidegger was the greatest ____ in my life..?” Of course the blank remains since some things are beyond speech. Still, Arendt does say: “There are some things that are stronger than human beings.”

This answer reveals nothing obvious but, reading between the lines, it suggests that philosophy was Arendt’s first love, not Heidegger. The “thing love” that Arendt speaks about is her love for life that came through writing and philosophy. Philosophy allows Arendt to sublimate her traumatic experience. It helped her survive, love, and work through a life stripped bare—with meditation, contemplation, and walks through the woods.

After Arendt’s New Yorker article is published and the pillory intensifies, she escapes to the country. McCarthy pled with her to respond to the critics, but she refuses to explain herself “to these dimwits.” Arendt surely didn’t anticipate the degree of criticism received after her New Yorker piece. Still, the philosopher became adept at moving in and out of cultural favor. Mary McCarthy’s visit encourages Arendt to return to New York and eventually “explain” her Eichmann piece, but as a lecture to her students at the New School. This culminating speech is a rousing event that comes at the end of the film. It is not only significant for what Arendt says, but mainly for the act of speaking itself.

Arendt’s struggle with the possibility of speaking at all is a primary subject of the film. The final speech refuses to make the Eichmann trail simply about Judaism. Instead, it is an opportunity to consider the meaning of the “human” in the twentieth century. In her remarkable end lecture, Arendt reiterates how people who refuse to claim their role in political systems do the greatest evil. Jewish leaders give insight into the total moral collapse of modern society, not just the Nazis. The Holocaust shows how the Nazi camps— and the phenomenon of genocide in general — strips humanity of the human. With Eichmann, Arendt says the modern degradation of humanity does not come through “radical evil.” Rather, it comes through a shocking social mediocrity where people follow orders and refuse to think (about war, surveillance, or their work). Her final lecture reiterates that the greatest insult of the Holocaust was the idea that Jews were not human. Arendt calls Eichmann’s crimes “crimes against humanity” not “crimes against Jews” since Jews are first and foremost human.

In a 1943 essay entitled “We Refugees,” she comes closest to describing her own situation. Arendt describes the Jewish German refugee as generally optimistic but sometimes, she “imagines that at least nightly we think of our dead or we remember the poems we once loved” (Menorah Journal, republished in The Pariah as Rebel, 77). In this essay and others, Arendt uses the phrase “conscious pariah” to describe a person who chooses to go against the grain and embrace the painful abnormality of their situation. While Arendt does not name herself, the term certainly applies to any Jewish–German refugee. Moreover with the Eichmann trial, Arendt embraces her refugee status more than her identity as a comfortably assimilated American. Eichmann in Jerusalem did not surface Arendt’s unconscious repressed since trauma is never assimilated. However, it made Arendt into a pariah from sublimating an impossible history itself.

Hannah Arendt shows how the philosopher consciously makes herself into a pariah to initiate a new discourse on the Holocaust. Indeed, as with recent cases of whistle blowers in the US, these individuals embrace their ‘pariahdom’ to initiate a once taboo discourse. Moreover, their position is not necessarily to convey a “message” or explain, “what happened.” It is rather to “change the record of history.” These individuals reference what has been left out of political discourse by making themselves into an outcast. Moreover, they act politically to initiate free speech on topics that were previously unspeakable. Hannah Arendt makes the decision to witness what has been left out and eradicated from history. The film is a reminder that the conscious- pariah inaugurates the possibility of an Other historical discourse that is not yet entirely determined.

Dr. Jessica Datema is an Associate Professor of Literature at Bergen Community College with a PhD in Comparative Literature and a MA in Philosophy from Binghamton University (SUNY). Datema is a published poet and has written articles on modernism, psychoanalysis and literary theory. Most recently she co-edited the book Wretched Refuge: Immigrants and Itinerants in the Postmodern. She lives in Brooklyn and is working on a book project entitled: A Modernist Influenced Hard-Boiled Poetics.


Works Cited

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—-. Men in Dark Times. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968. Print.

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Arendt, Hannah, and Ron H Feldman. “The Pariah as Rebel: We Refugees.” The Jew as Pariah: Jewish Identity and Politics in the Modern Age. New York: Grove Press : distributed by Random House, 1978. 55–67. Print.

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—-. The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 1996. Print.

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Ring, Jennifer. The Political Consequences of Thinking: Gender and Judaism in the Work of Hannah Arendt. Albany, N.Y: State University of New York Press, 1998. Print.

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Weigel, Moira. “Heritage Girl Crush: On ‘Hannah Arendt’ -.” 16 July 2013. Web. 2 Sept. 2013.


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