On screen: Eichmann, Arendt and ‘banality of evil’


Fifty years after Hannah Arendt came out with her controversial book, “Eichmann In Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil,” a new film from German director Margarethe Von Trotta revisits the famed Jewish political theorist and her views on the lieutenant colonel of the Nazi SS.

Born to Jewish parents in 1906 in Hanover, Germany, Arendt studied philosophy, was briefly imprisoned by the Gestapo, fled to Paris, was interned in and escaped from the detention camp in Gurs, emigrated to the United States, and achieved fame, if not notoriety, for her coverage of the Adolf Eichmann trial for The New Yorker.

Von Trotta’s film “Hannah Arendt,” focusing on four years surrounding the 1961 Eichmann trial, opened at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival on July 28. Ron Feldman, co-editor of “The Jewish Writings of Hannah Arendt” and a visiting scholar at the Graduate Theological Union, led a post-film discussion at Congregation Sha’ar Zahov (Reform).

“The film reasonably portrays a lot of the personal situations Arendt found herself in when she started writing her book, and the intellectual and political controversies around it,” Feldman told JNS.org. “It portrays how she developed her thinking. It’s not a documentary, it’s a biopic.”

In an interview with her publicist made available to JNS.org, Von Trotta talks about her use of black and white archival footage of the trial to capture Eichmann’s “not-thinking” character. The now-famous line — “the banality of evil” — that Arendt used to describe Eichmann still reverberates today and usually leads to a heated discussion about the Holocaust.

“You can only show the true ‘banality of evil’ by observing the real Eichmann,” Von Trotta said. “An actor can only distort the image, he could never sharpen it. As a viewer, one might admire the actor’s brilliance but they would inevitably fail to comprehend Eichmann’s mediocrity. He was a man who was unable to formulate a single grammatically correct sentence. One could tell from the way he spoke that he was unable to think in any significant way about what he was doing.”

Arendt was no stranger to controversy and Feldman, having studied her work for years, understands her more than most.

“There is still interest in these issues that happened 50 years ago. ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’ is still read in universities and the book has had an amazing lifespan and this film was made,” Feldman told JNS.org. “Certain authors have claimed recently that this is one of the more important intellectual and political controversies in American-Jewish intellectual circles in the 20th century.

“When Arendt went to the Eichmann trial and wrote about it, there were ways in which she wrote about it that were provocative and also critical of the way the trial was handled by the Israeli government. Part of it was simply that she wrote things provocatively and could have been a little more subtle and thoughtful. I don’t hold her blameless.”

Feldman said Arendt’s most controversial assertion was her criticism of Jewish leadership.

“The biggest issue was she wrote critically about the conduct of Jewish leadership during the war and claimed that Jewish leaders cooperated mostly inadvertently with the Nazis,” he said. “She was not sympathetic to it and so many people claimed that she was blaming the victims. She was not blaming the victims. She was blaming the conduct of some Jewish leaders. That is a subtlety that escaped. This was not a new thing but came out in a new way.”

In “Eichmann In Jerusalem,” which came out in 1963, Arendt’s thesis is that the great evils in history generally, and the Holocaust in particular, were not executed by sociopaths but by ordinary people who accepted the premises of their state, and they therefore participated in those evils with the belief that their actions were normal.

“With her staunch refusal to obey anything other than her own knowledge and beliefs, Arendt could not be more different than Eichmann,” Von Trotta said. “His duty, as he himself insisted, was to be faithful to his oath to obey the orders of his superiors. In this blind allegiance, Eichmann surrendered one of the main characteristics that distinguish human beings from all other species — the ability to think for himself.”

A refugee from Germany, Arendt surfaced in an Upper West Side apartment and in classrooms of the New School, where she taught. Already a successful writer, The New Yorker magazine sent her to Jerusalem in 1961 to witness and write about the trial of Eichmann, one of the architects of the Nazis’ “final solution.” Transfixed and agitated, Arendt began to formulate the concept of “the banality of evil,” opening a flood of controversy that changed her life forever.

Using black-and-white footage from the actual Eichmann trials and weaving a narrative that spans three countries, the new film features Barbara Sukowa as Arendt. Born in Berlin, director Von Trotta is one of the leaders of the New German Cinema movement and one of the world’s best-known feminist filmmakers.

In a key scene, Arendt stands before a lecture theater full of her students, insisting that anyone who wishes to write about that period in history has a duty to try to understand what makes ordinary people into tools of totalitarianism. American social psychologist Stanley Milgram interpreted Arendt’s work as stating that even the most ordinary of people can commit horrendous crimes if placed in certain situations and given certain incentives.

He wrote, “I must conclude that Arendt’s conception of the banality of evil comes closer to the truth than one might dare imagine.”

Arendt did not suggest that Eichmann was normal or that any person placed in his situation would have done as he did. According to her account, Eichmann had abdicated his will to make moral choices, and thus his autonomy. Arendt’s book, criticized by many Jewish leaders who said it exhibited coldness and lack of sympathy for the victims of Holocaust, was only recently translated into Hebrew.

The book’s ending states, “Just as you (Eichmann) supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations — as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world — we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang.”

“A lot of people looked at the subtitle and didn’t read the book and thought she was defending Eichmann and somehow minimizing what Eichmann did,” Feldman told JNS.org. “What Arendt was really claiming was she saw in Eichmann that relatively normal people could be drawn up into a movement like that and act in evil and horrific ways.”

According to Von Trotta, Arendt stayed true to her views on Eichmann despite the criticism.

“Her refusal to be overwhelmed by despair and helplessness makes her, in my eyes, an extraordinary woman whose light still shines today,” Von Trotta said. “A woman who can love and be loved and a woman who can, as she put it, ‘Think without banisters.’ That is, to be an independent thinker.”