Film: Hannah Arendt by Margarethe von Trotta

A Cut in the Flesh of the Twentieth Century

In her New York years Hannah Arendt is stuck between the prejudices of the American and Israeli public, her dedication to profound understanding and genuine truth and the moral thaw of the post-war era.

by Kilian

momentous banalities

In the 2012 movie, German movie maker and screenwriter Margarethe von Trotta and actress Barbara Sukowa recount a circa five year period in the life of the outstanding female thinker who has become one of the most important political theorists of the twentieth century. New York City, the early sixties. Hannah Arendt inhabits a high-rise apartment in Manhattan with her husband Heinrich Blücher, philosopher and former comrade of 1919 murdered socialist Rosa Luxemburg. Decorated with a bourgeois canapé, piles of typewriter sheets and manuscripts on desks and tables, respectably filled bookshelves and primitivist paintings that remind of Paul Gauguin in the South Sea, Arendt's residence invites the prominent New York Intellectuals, progressive minds from journalism, literature and academia influential on East Coast zeitgeist, to hilarious get-togethers on whisky and champagne.

Beside this playful metropolitan life western public is shaken by Adolf Eichmann, manager of the Holocaust in Nazi occupied Europe some twenty years ago. The former SS-officer, who was caught gone underground in Buenos Aires, is put on trial in Jerusalem and confronted with meticulous reconstructions of Nazi crimes committed on European Jews. Arendt reports on the Eichmann trial from the young Israel, collects kilos of protocols and, back in the US, comes out with a series of scandalous articles in the prestigious magazine The New Yorker. Thereupon she is heavily offended for emphasizing the role of Jewish leaders cooperating with the Nazi administration during WWII and her characterization of war criminal Eichmann as an example of banal mediocrity of a technocratic follower. These outrageous statements bring her defaming hostility, both personally and academically and even an unexpected split-up with an old and honoured friend …

a courageous thinker on the borderlands

When asked what she felt when arriving in New York after her escape from a French detention camp in 1940 where she was imprisoned on the run from the Nazis, she laconically replied “freedom”, a term whose ambiguity she was very familiar with through her studies with famous Martin Heidegger, the weighty existence philosopher and diffuse Nazi sympathizer. She not only “learned to think” under his supervision, but also had a romantic relationship with him as a young woman that took an equivocal shape after the war. During her life-long exile in the USA she investigated the rise of and human behaviour under totalitarian German fascism and its roots in the history of western civilization and contrasted it with her famous concept of vita activa, a good, profound and morally integer way of living.

post-war life

Today Hannah Arendt's notions on the Eichmann trial, Jewish opportunism and the withering personality under total rule are generally accepted. In her day this progressive and by now factually verified thought was met with refusal since twenty years after the war the American and Jewish naïve fallacy about the monstrous and virtually “nonhuman” Nazi culprits was still the prevalent opinion. Arendt once more proved that intellectual pioneering is oftentimes impeded by the rocky road of prejudice and narrowmindedness, hindering forward thinking. 

Another nexus to present age is Arendt's friend Mary McCarthy's 1963 novel The Group about the young adult life of eight highly educated upper class New York women and their entanglements with career, marriage, sexual relationships and the mores and morals of their age. In the late 90s this concept was adapted to the worldwide popular TV show Sex and the City.

the lesson to learn

The curtain finally falls with the approaching portrait of a fascinating figure of twentieth century thought who campaigns for independent thinking and personal development to defend liberty and human dignity as an essential matter of forcing back moral corruption. This concept, albeit rhetorically antiquated, is still lacking assertive practice, for in times of globally increasing expenses on arms, rigorous turbo capitalism and ecological haemorrhage man obviously hasn't learned very much from the misconducts of his past century.

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