The Evil of Banality


For about a month, I’ve had the Blu-Ray edition of the 2012 biopic Hannah Arendt from Netflix sitting on top of one of the home theater speakers in my den, but because of the Christmas holiday and trepidation about what to expect, I didn’t get around to actually inserting the disc into the player until this past weekend. Stunning picture in the Blu-Ray edition, handsome art direction which quickly evokes the feeling of New York intellectual life in the early 1960s with a depth missing from the TV-oriented production design of Mad Men – and more smoking than an entire season of Mad Men. I’m serious. This film does for Marlboros what the first Thin Man movie did for Martinis -- Arendt, her husband, her sidekick Mary McCarthy, and just about everybody else in the film is smoking in seemingly every shot, with the exception of Eichmann.

Speaking of which, the one brilliant gesture of the film was, early on, to cut between reaction shots of actress Barbara Sukowa as Arendt, and the actual black and white kinescopes of Eichmann during his trial, which generates far more of an emotional kick in the gut than hiring an actor to recreate the trial as movie scenes.

As for the rest of the film, this article by Sol Stern from the September issue of Commentary accurately illustrates the movie's intellectual dishonesty:

The film would have us believe that Arendt came to judge the Eichmann trial with no preconceived political views of the prosecution, that is, the state of Israel. This is not true. We know this to be untrue from letters she wrote at the time to friends such as Mary McCarthy, Karl Jaspers, and her husband, all of which became available after the author’s death in 1975 and were available to Von Trotta as well. They offer a glimpse into Arendt’s uncensored thoughts about Jerusalem, the people of Israel, and the trial’s protagonists. Her reflections can be described as bigoted, even hateful.

The Israeli police gave her “the creeps” because they spoke “only Hebrew and looked Arabic.” Jerusalem was “dirty” and as unpleasant as Istanbul. In one letter she wrote that “honest and clean people were at a premium.” She was disdainful of the “oriental mob” outside the courthouse. She expressed contempt for the black-hatted, ultra-orthodox Jews “who make life impossible for all reasonable people here,” and she expressed a hauteur about the unrefined Yiddish-speaking immigrants who had come to Israel from Eastern Europe. (In Eichmann in Jerusalem, she described prosecutor Gideon Hausner as a “Galician Jew who speaks without periods or commas.”)

Stern goes on to note that near the conclusion of the Arendt biopic, its eponymous subject is depicted being fired by the incensed regents of Manhattan’s New School for having dared to write Eichmann in Jerusalem, when in reality,  the far left New School offered her tenure because of the book. Similarly, conservatives who watch the film should be on guard for its sucker punch, about three quarters of the way through, against “Norman,” the one contemporary of Arendt whose last name wasn't uttered in the film, likely because he’s alive and well – and so is his lawyer:

Podhoretz, at the time editor of this magazine, published his critique of Eichmann in Jerusalem in the September 1963 issue of Commentary. You can see why Von Trotta would have regarded this as a slam-dunk proof of her version of the Arendt controversy, the one in which the truth-telling and courageous Arendt is set upon by a collection of pro-Israel hacks following the party line as dictated from Jerusalem and the offices of the ADL. For of course, Podhoretz was one of the founders of the neoconservative movement in America—you know, those warmongers and “Israel firsters”—and Commentary was one of the movement’s headquarters.

But when he reviewed Eichmann in Jerusalem, Podhoretz was no neoconservative, indeed no conservative at all. Commentary had moved substantially to the left upon his ascension as editor in 1960 and had become known for publishing radical writers such as Paul Goodman, Herbert Marcuse, and Staughton Lynd. Podhoretz had no particular connection to the Zionist movement, and as for his attitude toward Arendt, he admired her enormously and considered her a friend.

The near-radical Podhoretz wrote a tough and complex review of Eichmann in Jerusalem, raising serious factual questions about her allegations of betrayal by Jewish leaders under Nazi occupation, but he never accused her in any sense of betraying “her people.” For example, he wrote: “Since Miss Arendt wishes us to believe that the Nazis could never have killed as many as six million Jews without Jewish help, she tries very hard to convey the impression that what the Jews themselves did in any given country mattered significantly too. And it is here that she becomes most visibly tendentious in her manipulation of the facts.”

Much more after the page break.