‘Hannah Arendt’ puts the intellect on trial

“Hannah Arendt” (2012 production, 2013 release). Cast: Barbara Sukowa, Janet McTeer, Axel Milberg, Julia Jentsch, Michael Degen, Nicholas Woodeson, Megan Gay, Tom Leick, Ulrich Noethen, Victoria Trauttmansdorff, Klaus Pohl, Friederike Becht, Fridolin Meinl. Director: Margarethe von Trotta. Screenplay: Pam Katz and Margarethe von Trotta. Web site. Trailer.

Critical thinking is one of those undertakings many of us are encouraged to pursue from an early age. We’re frequently urged to do so in an educational context, but its applicability extends to virtually every aspect of daily life. Of course, to make best use of this skill, we must employ it judiciously, taking into account related considerations that impact its effectiveness, for failing to do so can have serious, far-reaching consequences. Those are some of the themes capably explored in the historical biography, “Hannah Arendt,” now available on DVD and Blu-ray disk.

“Hannah Arendt” primarily focuses on a four-year period (1960-1964) in the life of the title character (1906-1975), one of the 20th Century’s leading political scientists and philosophers. Having grown up in a Jewish household in Germany, the studious Arendt (Barbara Sukowa) witnessed the rise of totalitarianism under the Nazis. She wisely fled to France in the days preceding World War II, but her new life in Paris did not guarantee sanctuary. When France was overrun by the invading Germans, she was sent to a French detention facility and narrowly escaped being sent to a concentration camp by emigrating to the U.S. Upon her arrival in New York, she once again had the freedom to resume her intellectual pursuits, gradually becoming a respected university lecturer and writer, eventually penning The Origins of Totalitarianism, the seminal treatise on the subject.

Arendt’s works and outlooks were characterized by an outspoken yet always-thoughtful, fervently passionate quality that not everyone agreed with, but she was nevertheless recognized for her unbridled honesty, sincerity and integrity. However, that all changed in 1960, when Arendt’s life took a dramatic left turn, one that cost her considerable respect and credibility – even among some of her staunchest supporters – which is where the film picks up the story.

On a desolate road in an industrial area north of Buenos Aires in May 1960, agents of the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, led a successful nighttime raid in which they captured escaped Nazi Adolf Eichmann. As one of the chief architects of the Third Reich’s “Final Solution” for exterminating Europe’s Jewish population, Eichmann was subsequently deported to Israel to stand trial for crimes against humanity, a prosecution that quickly garnered worldwide attention.

Arendt, who was captivated by Eichmann’s story, volunteered to cover the trial for New Yorker magazine, an offer that editor William Shawn (Nicholas Woodeson) enthusiastically embraced. However, not everyone at this highly respected publication was on board with the idea. For example, Francis Wells (Megan Gay), one of Shawn’s colleagues, expressed reservations about the would-be correspondent; given Arendt’s ivory tower background, Wells wondered whether she would be capable of preparing a piece of reportage that would fulfill the needs of the magazine and its readers – or of even meeting a deadline. But Shawn was so taken with the proposal that he agreed to Arendt’s terms, and, before long, she was on her way to Israel. It would prove to be the start of a firestorm that brought considerable scrutiny – and criticism – upon both Arendt and the New Yorker.

In covering the trial, Arendt applied her signature introspective approach to the task, not unlike what she did when ensconced in one of her scholarly undertakings. She looked on Eichmann and the trial from a philosophical standpoint, coming to a number of conclusions that ran counter to prevailing public sentiment. She held fast to her views, though, frequently engaging in arguments with others, including longtime friends and colleagues Kurt Blumenfeld (Michael Degen) and Hans Jonas (Ulrich Noethen). And that was before she ever put pen to paper. What happened once she did that would change her life and her world forever.

And what, specifically, prompted the public outcry? In covering the trial (depicted here through archival footage), Arendt was struck by Eichmann’s indifferent attitude toward his actions. Instead of coming across like the calculating evil genius that most people perceived him to be, Eichmann, in Arendt’s view, was more of an unthinking, perfunctory bureaucrat, one who repeatedly justified his behavior by insisting “I was only following orders.” In light of that, Arendt concluded that Eichmann embodied a concept she termed “the banality of evil,” a state of being that she believed arises when someone fails to consider the nature of nefarious actions (and their attendant implications) before engaging in them.

Needless to say, such statements did not earn Arendt or the New Yorker many fans. By postulating such an esoteric (and seemingly nonjudgmental) assessment, she was seen (albeit erroneously) as sympathetic to, if not an outright defender of, Eichmann, a position she vehemently denied. She insisted that Eichmann ultimately deserved whatever punishment he received (he was eventually convicted and hanged for his crimes), but, given the heat of the emotions swirling about this event, her explanations were often drowned out by the shrill chorus of public opinion. In defending herself, Arendt vociferously contended that “trying to understand is not the same as forgiveness,” but her arguments frequently fell on deaf ears.

If the foregoing weren’t bad enough, Arendt was also perceived as a turncoat to her own people. As a Jew, Arendt was criticized for her allegedly “soft” stance on Eichmann, with many in the Jewish community claiming that “she should know better.” These circumstances became further inflamed when Arendt alleged that, based on revelations at the trial, some Jewish elders may have even played a part in furthering the Nazis’ aims, a charge that resulted in extreme animosity – and even death threats – against her. Arendt defended herself by noting that she said some Jews, not Europe’s entire Jewish citizenry, may have participated in such actions, but, again, the specifics of her assertions were frequently overshadowed by public outrage.

Considering the backlash that was directed against her, some might wonder (and quite legitimately at that) how Arendt failed to foresee these reactions. Was such an oversight due to cold insensitivity? Unchecked naïveté? Intellectualism run amok? Or was it something else?

As noted earlier, Arendt was a thinker, one who genuinely seeks to understand the motives underlying our actions, be they those of a friend or of a war criminal. This discipline relies heavily on honing one’s intellect, a practice Arendt learned in her youth while she was a student (Friederike Becht) under Professor Martin Heidigger (Klaus Pohl), an association depicted in several flashbacks. Arendt enthusiastically embraced the teachings of her mentor and subsequently applied this outlook in her writings and in her assessments of daily living and the human condition.

Adept conscious creation practitioners will recognize how Arendt’s approach to the act of thinking parallels the act of assessing the beliefs we employ in creating the reality we experience. Those who successfully engage in either kind of introspection are able to evaluate the particulars of why things manifest as they do, a process that draws attention not only to the creations in question, but also to a number of significant related issues, such as the impact of implications, the role of integrity, the importance of responsibility and the consideration of alternatives to contemplated actions. By contrast, those who fail at this ultimately wind up engaging in un-conscious creation or creation by default, where we employ materialization beliefs or partake in actions that ignore consequences and abrogate accountability (endeavors not unlike what Arendt contended Eichmann engaged in).

In scrutinizing one’s circumstances, Arendt also asserted that the assessment process needs to be conducted on a case-by-case basis. People and situations, she contended, must be examined individually, not on the grounds of broad, sweeping generalizations, advice that conscious creators would be wise to heed (and a practice Arendt was careful to follow in her own evaluations). For instance, as noted above, in making her accusations against community elders, Arendt limited her allegations to certain individuals, not the population at large. However, by contrast, many of Arendt’s critics judged her views with broad brush strokes, ignoring the specifics of her contentions and thereby significantly raising the hysteria level. Some even went so far as to suggest that, because of her close affiliation with Heidigger (an association that went beyond the traditional student-teacher relationship), she had inherent sympathetic leanings toward the Nazis given his early support of the fascists, a charge that made her cringe. Loyal supporters, like novelist Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer), one of Arendt’s closest friends, were quick to come to her defense, pointing out the dangers of such overblown generalizations, but their efforts, like Arendt’s own arguments, weren’t enough to be heard over the din of criticism.

Nevertheless, while Arendt’s efforts in championing the intellect are indeed laudable, in doing so she may have simultaneously minimized the importance of feelings and emotions, qualities that many of her detractors were obviously much more attuned to. By downplaying their significance, she unwittingly succeeded in agitating her critics, often failing to recognize the source of their anger. And, considering the highly charged nature of these circumstances, her attitude was seen as dismissive, something she frequently failed to acknowledge, let alone comprehend. That’s rather ironic, too, given the passion she routinely exhibited in making her own arguments.

As conscious creators know, balancing our intellectual and emotional sides is crucial to make best use of the manifestation process since both play vital roles in the formation of our beliefs. We would be wise to follow Arendt’s example by what she did – and what she didn’t do – in this regard, for it provides us with a model we can follow for our own lives. But, regardless of what one might think of Arendt’s conclusions, she nevertheless got people thinking, not just about the particulars of her situation, but also in a larger sense – as a way of looking at life, how we conduct ourselves and, ultimately, in how we manifest our respective realities.

“Hannah Arendt” is an excellent film about a significant, if not especially well-known, 20th Century figure. Its weighty subject matter doesn’t lend itself to casual viewing, so make sure you’re in the right mood before taking on this picture. Director Margarethe von Trotta has done a superb job of making a compelling movie about an intangible subject – thinking – that easily might have been difficult to depict effectively if left in less-skilled hands. Credit the film’s terrific writing, which accomplishes its goals without becoming preachy, abstract or dull, and Sukowa’s masterful performance, which is easily one of the most underrated screen portrayals of recent years. This largely overlooked gem played in a very limited run when initially released, but, thankfully, it’s now available on disk, where I’m hoping it will find a much-deserved audience.

Our capacity to think is one of our most prized capabilities. It can lead us to sublime realizations and profound insights, both in our loftiest aspirations and our everyday dealings. But knowing how to make use of it is crucial if we hope to achieve the success we seek. Putting the intellect on trial may be one of the most effective ways to find out whether we’re on track with our deployment of it or whether we need to make much-needed adjustments. And it’s an undertaking we’d best pursue before undesirable consequences befall us. Just ask Hannah.

Copyright © 2014, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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