“Hannah Arendt” – Why Now?

Okay, so here’s the transcript of my talk from last night.  I ad-libbed some stuff about questions from yesterday’s blog post.  I plan to rewrite it for publication, so any thoughts/suggestions/haikus would be appreciated.

“Hannah Arendt” – Why Now?

Thank you, and thank you to everyone who worked together to put on this event:  ASPECT, Religion and Culture, Political Science, and the professors here.  Rather than try to do a critique of the film as a whole and somehow fit it all into the body of Arendt’s work, I instead decided to bring out four key points from the film that stood out to me (which actually might be doable in ten minutes):  Arendt’s own Judaism, the status of Arab Jews, the position of the bureaucrat, and the funding for the film itself.

No outward signs of Judaism in her house:

Arendt was Jewish, but culturally so.  She was a secular Jew, and her home showed it.  There are none of the tchotchkes associated with Judaism on the shelves, no mezuzah on the door.  Even in Jerusalem, she maintains her Western appearance and does not dress as traditionally as the other women she interacts with.  Revisionism to make Arendt seem more “Jewish” may have done something for her character in the film, but the film pulled no punches, showing her as others perceived her and keeping her in this motif.

Arab Jews have no voice/presence in film:

Along with that attention to historical accuracy, Arendt’s personal beliefs on types of Jews shows up obliquely in the film.  Arendt is known for believing that German Judaism was the best Judaism, remarking that it was lucky for Eichmann to have three German Jewish judges in Israel, who she called the “best of German Jewry.”[1]   She stated to Karl Jaspers once that the Israeli police force “gives me the creeps, speaks only Hebrew, and looks Arabic.”[2] (xvii).  This, in comparison to her championing the rights of Arab Palestinians seems strange.[3]  It is remarked upon in the film that she never quite forgave Germany for letting her down as a German, yet she is inseparable from Germany in culture.  The film portrays this subtly; while she passes Arab Jews and Eastern European Jews in the streets of Jerusalem, she does not interact with them.  All of her Jewish friends are German Jews and she argues with them from the point of view of German continental philosophy.  The film did an excellent job keeping this reality in place, in spite of the fact that it makes Arendt look less than favorable to non-German Jews.

Bureaucrats:

The status of the bureaucrat comes up often in the film, as in Arendt’s work, and has definite applicability to discussions of the modern Israeli state.  Part of Arendt’s arguments for the banality of evil are the bureaucratic persona of figures like Eichmann—dedicated pencil-pushers who just followed orders.  I’ll go out on a limb of controversiality here and say that these arguments are fascinating when one considers some of the more contentious policies of the Israeli government with regard to border control and settlements in the West Bank.  Many of these policies, which Arendt herself cautioned against, could be seen as being able to be perpetuated by a banality within the bureaucracy of Israel.  Groups like J Street represent American Jews against the policies of occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, and there are many op-ed writers within Israel who speak out often against Israeli treatment of Palestinians, yet these policies continue.

When Arendt criticizes Israel’s right to even try Eichmann, her colleague Kurt Blumenfeld responds, “Be a little patient with us,” implying that Israel is a new state bound to make some mistakes.  But how long is too long to remain being patient?  At what point does “Be a little patient with us” become a crutch for not having to take a closer look at divisive policies?  If nothing else, this film spurs the audience toward reevaluating the current state of affairs in Israel through Arendt’s lens.

Funding of the film:

I’d like to conclude with the funding and the making of the film.  According to Heinrich Blücher, “History more than one man” was on trial during the Eichmann trial.  It is with this point of view on history rather than individual that I do wonder why make this film? Why now?  Two Jewish film funds, the Israel Film Fund (a 501c3 nonprofit) and The Jerusalem Film and Television Fund (under the auspices of the Jerusalem Development Authority, a joint venture between the Israeli Government and the Jerusalem Municipality), partially sponsored the film.  But why?  Why now?  Was it to redeem Arendt’s reputation amongst a new generation of Jews?  Or was it to teach a new generation why Arendt’s views were dangerous to the Israeli state?

I was left unclear by the film itself.  While the audience is naturally pulled toward supporting Arendt, both through Barbara Sukowa’s stunning performance and the weight of Arendt’s words herself, the negative responses to her work in the film far outweigh the positives.  Arendt’s rousing defense of her work before the students and faculty of the New School at the end of the film leaves the audience thinking the film will have a positive dénouement, yet the mood is ruined by her dear friend and colleague Hans Jonas not being convinced and disowning her.  The film ends as it began, Arendt alone in her apartment, listlessly smoking a cigarette, isolated with her thoughts.

Characters in the film talk about how Arendt is asking questions about things best laid to rest, but why?  Simply because the questions make us uncomfortable?  And what does it say that Israel funded a film that reopens all these questions?  The good news is, we are asking these questions.  By having a panel such as this, we’re trying to find out how Arendt’s work is still valuable today, and I would definitely argue that it is, indeed, valuable.


[1] Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem:  A Report on the Banality of Evil  (New York: Penguin Books, 2006), xviii.
[2] Eichmann in Jerusalem:  A Report on the Banality of Evil  (New York: Penguin Books, 2006), xvii.
[3] Eichmann in Jerusalem:  A Report on the Banality of Evil, 13.

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One response to ““Hannah Arendt” – Why Now?

  1. The film is not necessarily fully non-fiction. Hannah did not speak in defense
    of the Eichman book in NY, as she was teaching in Chicago. In NY, she and
    Hans were quite collegial.

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