Four stars for the 2012 film Hannah Arendt based on the historical intellectual figure of the same name.  It’s a definite left brain kind of movie relying on the ideas presented for its vitality and entertainment value.  It throws in a bit of her complicated love life, mostly to emphasize her prior romance to Heidegger.  To those of us who read her in college the intellectualism being expressed between the powerful minds represented in the film might seem a little sophomoric, but as heady as the film might want to be it obviously has to appeal to a broader base than those who’ve actually read her and the other NY Intellectuals extensively.

It’s a moral story about the importance of free thinking.  It centers on her coverage of the Adolph Eichmann trial and the controversy of her conclusion that Eichmann wasn’t a “monster,” but was a nobody who was simply part of a broader social evil which carried its own inertia and everyone along with it including Jewish leaders, some of whom collaborated in the demise of Jewish people.  The film does do a good job of elaborating on the nuances of her conclusions – it wasn’t compassion for Eichmann as she was fine with him being executed, maybe even slightly sanguine as opposed to her husband who calls it as a cop out.  Obviously though, her article (published first in the New Yorker) was misinterpreted by many as a defense of Eichmann and blaming the victims and the resulting tempest (which is a matter of record in various intellectual magazines of the time) makes very clear that we’ve never needed the Internet to engage in flame wars with appeals to emotion at the expense of reason.

Her premise – totalitarianism is a social evil which deprives individuals of the right to think and survive at the same time.  Eichmann was a “nobody” who simply took orders and wasn’t ideological, and although she despised him she believed him for reasons on which she elaborated in great detail.  Now, some of the articles slamming her in the aftermath raised questions about her factual support – I remember reading a Commentary article (Commentary wasn’t yet neo-con at the time, but it was on its way) which laid out some evidence that maybe Eichmann wasn’t as ideology-free as she argued, and there are plenty of questions to be asked about the extent to which her “banality of evil” theme can excuse individual behavior, but the point is that while everyone else was into the trial for the blood she was making an earnest attempt to understand what she was watching.  She’s accused of being “too philosophical” about a man who was a leader in a system that killed 6 million and almost killed her – the suggestion being that she was repressing her feelings and being overly dispassionate.  The film counters by suggesting it was her passion for Heidegger which blunted her hatred of those who compromised on their humanity during the war – there’s really no other point to his involvement in the story.

The film doesn’t mention, and probably it’s not necessary that it does, that her ideas were controversial even before her trial coverage.  In her book about totalitarianism she argued, among other things, that Jews were not “the operative factor” in Nazism and the Holocaust, but merely a “convenient proxy.”  And again, it’s very arguable, but it was also attacked somehow as a denial of anti-Semitism.

I think the movie could have underscored the point by working into the script her final paragraph in the New Yorker articles:

“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.”

But she does seem intellectually aloof to certain prevailing sensibilities across the political spectrum.  She’s clearly not a classical leftist by the point in her life, very much not into Jewish identity politics, and dismisses Zionism as a “folly of her youth.”  She universalizes her empathy and does not identify herself as Jewish in the same way as those around her.  Very complicated character to depict, and the film does an excellent job I think.

I don’t want to say too much more.  The film concludes with a speech, presumably at New School in NYC where she was teaching at the time, in which she wows her students but still pisses off the adults.

A few more points – the film itself isn’t a great work of art.  The camera work was uninspiring – might as well have been a TV movie.  And the score – honestly if there was a musical score I don’t remember it.  It was a German film so most of it is subtitled, but there are English portions of the film which seem much less well written than what I was reading in the subtitles.  The acting is fine.  The woman who played Arendt was very good.  The woman who played her friend, the novelist and social critic Mary McCarthy was fantastic – the life of the party so to speak.  And then there was the character simply identified as “Norman,” whom I’m supposing to represent Norman Podhoretz who took over Commentary at about that time and following Irving Krystol into what would become known as “neoconservatism” first wave – the ex-socialists who would support Nixon in 1972 and then Reagan and so on.  “Norman” in the film is portrayed as an asshole, and the film is definitely more sympathetic to the liberal political view than not, but I don’t know if they knew each other personally and maybe that’s why the last name is left out.

I like stories about smart people and free thinking, and I was disappointed enough in all the ideas which were left out to think that it’s accessible to most people.  And there’s enough of a personal story that most won’t find it boring.  I wish there was a little more art to it, but I think the story will keep most people who like to think engaged.

It’s available on Netflix streaming.