“Hannah Arendt”: a fine movie
This is tricky. I have spent no more than half an hour, ever, reading Hannah Arendt and none at all reading about the contemporary reaction to her “banality of evil” pieces in the New Yorker. Nothing daunted, I will risk riffing on the similarities between Hannah Arendt and Ayn Rand, partly because they were contemporaries; partly because both are the subject of bio-pics; but mostly because they seem to touch on the same verities.
Part of the merit of this new film is that it seems to be an emotionally-rich account of the fascinating personal background to Arendt’s thinking. It stands up as a story with a narrative arc. In that, it is rather similar to the 1999 movie, The Passion of Ayn Rand, starring (I always think a little improbably, though charmingly) Helen Mirren. The similarities don’t end there.
The Arendt film is not completely coherent, I think. It maybe that Arendt wasn’t either, and I haven’t investigated enough to be sure. The problems is that the film seems to show that Eichmann suggests he is capable of moral thought and scruple but that he had made an oath to forgo dissidence. Leave aside whether we believe Eichmann was being honest, there is a bit of a problem when we have Arendt saying, in the film, that he had abandoned the ability to think. Actually, it seems to me that his claim to have been following orders is – within his stated logic – capable of being the view of a thoughtful person, and even a moral one. Indeed, at times that seems to be Arendt’s main point too. The point of followership is that, taken literally or far enough, it abandons autonomy of every sort. That is and always has been the core problem of authority.
Hannah Arendt and her husband (for rather different reasons, according to the film) doubt the merit of the Eichmann trial. She seems to say that its credibility depended on its putting a person on trial for his provable specific crimes, and yet – she notes – it seems to be a trial about a system and the totality of its atrocities. So I think the film is stressing that within his own logic, and as accepted by Arendt, millions of Germans are as guilty as Eichmann (more guilty in some matters) in being anti-Semitic, obedient to Hitler and the regime, and in playing some part in the Holocaust, however mechanical or bureaucratic. Why not hang all of them?
The film points to a big confounding issue. We see Arendt pointing out a sort of complicity between some Jewish leaders and the Nazi regime, and she goes so far as to say that this is a function of totalitarian thought, which is thus seen to afflict both villain and victim. I know nothing of the history of that line of argument, but it does point to a failure in the film, in the sense that it portrays Jewish (and maybe some gentile) outrage at her work without giving us a feel for how much or little it focussed exclusively on this sharply difficult bit of her various ideas.
The film tells us that Arendt was shunned by American academics in her own university, and also by (all or many or most of) her Jewish intellectual friends, including those who shared her German background. There is a moment in the film – is it a vulgar one? – when her massed students applaud her thinking about evil’s banality as her middle-aged academic employers walk out. (There is a very useful if partisan review of the film by Roger Berkowitz which looks at this and other dimensions of the controversy.)
The point I most want to make is that there is a sort of bottom-line Arendt case which both matters and is really the same as that made by Ayn Rand. We have this film showing us that Arendt, a refugee from Nazi totalitarianism, thought that 20th century events teach us that it is not only selfishness which makes us immoral, as had been supposed for centuries. Ayn Rand, a refugee from Soviet totalitarianism, insists it is precisely the absence of selfishness which is the problem.
These two women seem to agree that we should avoid sub-contracting our minds to a system or group, even including to virtuous or deserving types. Arendt seems to be saying that the one thing she learned from the Eichmann trial was that mass-thought – even including Jewish mass thought – was unlikely to be sound.
Of course, important as that is, and hugely valuable as she is in pointing it out, we still have the problem that few us can or do think very serious out for ourselves. We are all followers, and obedient to some “other” or other: picking the right one, and putting our own limits on our biddability, remains very tricky. It is almost as tricky (to be overly-neat about things) to think for ourselves and to put a limit on our preparedness to act accordingly.