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Hannah Arendt – Germany – Margarethe von Trotta

September 12, 2012

Okay – this was worth my whole week at the Festival. I was totally surprised by this film. My postgraduate work was in philosophy and specifically 20th century European philosophy and Jewish existentialist theology (wowzers). I read Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism and The Human Condition and I thought to learn something about this thinker and writer. However, the book that gained her notoriety and on which this movie is based was her report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann – Eichmann in Jerusalem: A report on the Banality of Evil. So instead of a somewhat academic look at a 20th Century German Philosopher, I was treated to a brilliant dramatic story of most unusual woman who demonstrated great courage and love.

As a Jew who was incarcerated in a detention camp in France in the Second World War and who only escaped to the US by chance she had much at stake when she was asked by the New Yorker Magazine to go to Jerusalem to witness his trial after he was abducted by the Israeli’s from Argentina. She was stunned by the proceedings and by Eichmann himself who came across as not one of the evil geniuses behind the Holocaust but as a minor and very mediocre bureaucrat who was simply following orders. He put the Jews on the trains but it was another department that dealt with them afterwards. He denied any culpability or guilt in the matter. He was just following orders. Once they were on the trains and off to their designated destinations, the rest was up to other departments. The film is a dramatic presentation of Arendt’s time in Israel and her return and the impact of her articles and ultimately her book on her career and reputation. One of the most dramatic aspects of the film is the newsreel footage of Eichmann’s testimony. It lends so much credence to her argument that the most extreme form of evil is ultimately so banal.

While many were upset at her description of Eichmann as a minor and mediocre bureaucrat the statements that got her most in trouble were related to her claim that the leaders of the Jewish communities in Europe were complicit in creating the Holocaust because they counselled their congregations and communities not to resist. This was seen by many to be blaming the victim when in fact Arendt, a Jew and someone who barely escaped being a victim of the Holocaust herself, saw this as just an extension of the totalitarian system and the banality of evil reaching even into the victims themselves.

The acting in this film is phenomenally good and the story compelling and engrossing despite the intellectual argument that flows through and drives the plot. I can’t recommend this film more highly to you all.

Hannah Arendt

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