I have a feeling that some of my posts will end on a cynical or critical note, so it is really my duty to say when I just can’t resist a movie. Fortunately, extreme emotions of all kinds are permissible on the internet.
There are only two barriers to full identification with the movie Hannah Arendt: the reverent depiction of her adoring American students—whom I see not as viewer surrogates but as rivals in fangirl devotion—and the endlessly significant cigarettes she smokes to indicate grueling moments of thought. But in what other movie can you see Mary McCarthy cheating at pool with Hannah Arendt in an upstate dive bar? Or Arendt facing down the Mossad alone on a deserted road (thereby clearly proving that she’s stronger than the Nazis)? The most famous point of her argument about the 1961 Eichmann trial, in the series of New Yorker articles that became Eichmann in Jerusalem, is that evil might not be Satanic or monstrous, but might be “banal,” a matter of just “following orders.” The movie shows us that heroism too can be a matter of the everyday, as Arendt struggles to speak her understanding of the truth at sometimes great personal cost. The point of both her argument and the movie’s is a general one, a scary one, and essentially a liberal one: our humanity is gained and lost in the “civil courage” of everyday interactions. It’s basically To Kill a Mockingbird for girls who love philosophy.
There is almost no moment in the movie in which Arendt is not depicted as living toward truth—except, very occasionally, when love might be at stake. Before this movie I’d have said that the most powerful part of Arendt’s biography was her student affair with existentialist philosopher Heidegger, who shockingly abandoned his Jewish students to flirt with Nazism. The movie hints that she’s working through Heidegger’s moral failure both in her indictment of the SS bureaucrat Eichmann’s “inability to think”—the most damning thing she could possibly have said to Heidegger!—and her determination to maintain the posture of German mandarin better than the master himself. But the publication of the New Yorker articles, on which the movie focuses, is a deeply moving chapter of her life that I had never really heard before. In the absence of family, Arendt relies heavily on her friends, especially her liberal and Jewish friends from pre-war Germany—and this is just the group that turns on her with the most outrage at what they perceive to be her apology for Eichmann’s behavior. You sense that, at her age, and with a frail husband, the loss of these friends is irreparable. Our historical distance makes it clear that Arendt’s ground-breaking insight on the distributed nature of evil in modern society was by no means an apology for Nazism, so the witch hunt against her comes across as sheer persecution, inflicting tragic and unfair damage. She defends free speech and intellectual integrity most nobly, but the struggle is so exhausting that at movie’s end she spends more and more time lying on her daybed, smoking and sadly thinking about the Holocaust.
Yet somehow this is not a downer. The movie offers more pleasures than the heroine’s courage: it depicts postwar New York as a golden age. Advanced German classes are full to overflowing. Your Upper East Side apartment has a view of the river.* Somewhere, a young Woody Allen is still dating age-appropriate women. Arendt’s character is a feminist hero who doesn’t need a bow and arrow—she’s got her manual typewriter and her string of pearls. You know she will read every single one of those trial transcripts, and slowly (because thinking is HARD!), long after the deadline has passed, will emerge with the clue that breaks the whole case.
Correction: I’ve been informed that Hannah Arendt’s real address was on Riverside Drive, on the Upper WEST Side. The movie lingers lovingly over views of Manhattan’s Upper East Side seen from the river, but perhaps the real object of desire there is the midcentury-modern United Nations Building.