Review: Hannah Arendt @ Chapter
‘The banality of evil’
This phrase has been thrown around a lot recently. Stephen Fry has used it in an open letter to David Cameron, regarding the situation in Russia of their treatment of LGBT+ people (article here).
It has no doubt been used every time a war, massacre or act of genocide has taken place, post WWII. But who thought up this phrase? Why does it sound so shocking? Is there any truth in it?
This is where the German Jewish writer Hannah Arendt comes in. Never wanting to be considered a philosopher, she was a keen social theorist, who is considered one of the greatest thinkers of the last century. She survived the war and described America as ‘paradise’ after leaving Europe. Her view was that men walk the Earth and therefore dispelling the notion of ‘Man’, if that makes sense? Her inspiring nature of sticking to her guns should be seen as a sign of greatness from other journalists. Yet her appearance during the trial of the Nazi, Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1960 and her outcome of this event, still causes tremors.
Although Eichmann was a highly successful SS Lieutenant Colonel in the war, in court he famously said that "I was only following orders" and made out he was basically a sort of slave, to those higher than him. Picking up on this and his character in general, Arendt came to the conclusion that this sort of evil is of the everyday sort. There was nothing in his appearance or manner to stand him out as a maniac or highly irrational person. How could this be? He was responsible for the murder of thousands-upon-thousands of people.
Incorporating real footage from the actual trial (it’s not easy to watch the real Eichmann), Margarethe von Trotta has created a film that will most certainly divide people. Barbara Sukowa plays a very concrete and determined Arendt, who at only one point breaks down and cries. The film goes back and forth between German and English (even occasional Hebrew). We see her relationships with The New Yorker (they published her articles on the trial), friends, her students, fellow writers and intellectuals, with very honest opinions. They all must choose to support her or berate her.
What caused the most controversy in her writing, was the brief statement regarding certain Jewish leaders who folded to the Germans and ‘assisted’ with the transportation of Jews to the concentration camps. Like with the surrender of France, this is a fiercely heated topic, but the vein of truth she speaks in this still resides. There were Jews who betrayed Jews. Very sad, but true.
I can grasp what she speaks of, but tapes have now been found of Eichmann, prior to the court case, speaking of his efforts in the transportations. But I doubt this proves her theory wrong. Whether he was anti-Semitic or not doesn’t really matter. It’s what he did to Jews that is important. I don’t judge people by what they are, I judge them by what they do.
She also went on to say that evil is everywhere and only goodness and purity remain most important, and that it can be obtainable. A lot of Germans did indeed follow horrific orders. It’s the classic observation, if Hitler asked you to jump off a mountain, would you? Your loyalty to the Reich could have been doubted at any moment. Another phrase constantly used is ‘What would you have done?’ I can’t really think about that. But I’d like to think that I would have died in protest for refusing to kill other people.
To quote Andrew Ryan from the game Bioshock, "How many catastrophes were started with the phrase: think of yourself?"
This film has certainly got me thinking. A lady in my row must be a psychic since she said the exact same thing that crossed my mind: "That was food for thoughtâ€¦" The score by AndrÃ© Mergenthaler helped paint musical moods of intrigue that were perfect for the subject matter. Half the audience stayed for the credits just to hear that silky and mysterious music again. The same lady as before saying of how she wished the whole audience had remained still till the whole film had ended, post credits.
This has proven to be the most stimulating film I’ve seen for a long time and this review has helped discuss some very deep concerns. If I have learnt anything from her, it is the revaluation of the rejection of evil and bad doing and the embrace of love and kindness. She breathed new life into these views that seen to have been forgotten today. I have tried to follow this ideal since birth.
These are words that I will abide by.