ATHENA’S DEPARTMENT: ARTS & LETTERS
MOVIE REVIEW: Hannah Arendt Reviewed by Henry Solomon
[Archived from Objective Motifs, August/September 2013 with minor edits]
A new movie that deserves a wide audience is “Hannah Arendt”. It’s an intellectual biography focusing on her reporting of the Eichmann trial in 1961. According to Roger Berkowitz, Director of the Hannah Arendt Center, some of the scenes in the movie were fictionalized, but the portrayal of Arendt’s intellectual development is accurate, and it is the portrayal of this development and her famous conclusion about “the banality of evil” that makes the movie first rate. A movie about serious ideas is very seldom made these days, and when the ideas are so relevant to the times we live in, it is like finding water in a desert. The acting is superb, especially that of Barbara Sukowa who plays Hannah Arendt. All of the actors portray serious people seriously concerned about ideas. Ms. Sukowa’s portrayal of Arendt’s intransigence reminded me of Ayn Rand and her defense of her ideas in the face of vehement opposition.
What is tragic in Arendt’s analysis is how terribly wrong her ultimate conclusions were. Fortunately, her conclusions, which I explain below, have not been included in the movie, and so do not undercut it.
In the Q&A I attended, at a second showing of the movie, Roger Berkowitz answered questions about her ideas and life. As Eichmann had claimed, he was merely following orders, he was a bureaucrat, who as Arendt identifies, had subverted his identity to the “higher cause” of Nazism, had lost his identity to Hitler, and was an obedient follower. In Arendt’s words from the film: “He was a nobody.” That is what she meant by “banality of evil.” Eichmann was only one person in a population of nobodies in service to Hitler. The tragic aspect of this is the implication Arendt draws from her conclusion about the Nazi followers. It was her view that it is dangerous for people to be overly “zealous” about their ideas. This view is terribly mistaken with regard to ideas that are true and deserve to be defended with the same intransigence that Arendt herself did. One is left wondering whether Arendt believed that there is such a thing as absolute truth worthy of a “zealous” defense. On visiting the Hannah Arendt website I was left with the distinct impression that she did not consider reality to be absolute. Probably the most disheartening argument for this view is the fact of her ongoing lifelong friendship with Martin Heidegger. It’s as though his ideas and his life had no moral implications, as though there was nothing in reality to identify a morality proper to man’s life. The best analysis of Arendt’s ultimate conclusions is given by Leonard Peikoff in his book The Ominous Parallels: The End of Freedom in America (Penguin, Meridian, NY, July 1993, pp 2256-257).
“Hannah Arendt, the best and most philosophically inclined of the commentators, is also, in regard to her ultimate conclusions, the worst, i.e., the most perversely wrong-headed. In a final warning, she singles out for special attack the attitude which she regards as a major source of the Nazis’ evil and of their success: an unswerving commitment to logic. The Nazis, she says, and the masses attracted to them, were ‘too consistent’ in pursuing the implications of a basic premise (which she identifies as racism); they gave up the freedom of thought for ‘the straight jacket of logic’ or ‘tyranny of logicality'; they did not admit that complete consistency “exists nowhere in the realm of reality,’ which is pervaded instead by ‘fortuitousness’.”
“Like the other commentators, but even more so, Miss Arendt moves in the modern intellectual mainstream, accepting without challenge all its basic ideas, including the conventional derogation of logic. Thus she can fail to see what her own book makes all but inescapable: that the essence of Hitler’s theories was not consistency, but unreason; that ‘fortuitousness’ is a property not of reality, but of Nazism; and that ‘logicality’ is not tyranny, but weapon against it.”
“It is a sin to study the agony of a continent of victims and end up offering as explanation the intellectual equivalent of a drugstore nostrum, or worse: end up preaching, as antidote, an essential tenet of the murderers.”
[Leonard Peikoff, The Ominous Parallels: The End of Freedom in America, Penguin/Meridian, 1993, New York, pp 256-257.
Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (new ed, New York, Harcourt Brace & World, 1966, pp 457, 470, 473, 471, 351, as cited in The Ominous Parallels: The End of Freedom in America by Leonard Peikoff, Penguin/Meridian, New York, 1993, pp 256-257. ]
In summary, it is a great movie dramatizing important ideas that are relevant to the world we live in, but should be seen with the awareness that these ideas are not Arendt’s final conclusions about what makes it possible for people like Eichmann to exist.
Copyright © Henry Solomon, 2013