Film Review – Hannah Arendt – Philosophy and Harm

This review comes quite late, given that the film was released in 2012, but, despite the fact that Arendt is one of my favourite philosophers and her theory on Eichmann the topic of my undergraduate dissertation, I’ve only just got around to watching it. This is no coincidence. I don’t really go in for biopics, especially those about people I really like.

The only thing in the film I took exception to was the use of Heidegger. Or, more specifically, the claim that Heidegger thanked Hitler in his inaugural address as Rektor of Freiburg. This is not true, although one can hardly blame the filmmakers as it is a very common lie.  Heidegger’s thought was also not as accurately transferred to film, although again one can hardly blame the filmmakers as there are few points where scholars have reached consensus. It also wasn’t clear to me exactly what the scenes with Heidegger were meant to show, except perhaps that Arendt surpassed her tutor in tackling the controversy surrounding her in the end. But, this can’t be it, since the Heidegger of the film is unequivocally guilty, and so his controversy disanalogous with that of Arendt

I would also be interested to know why Heidegger was given such emphasis. There are legitimate reasons for doing so, but when I talk of Arendt I consciously try not to mention Heidegger except where it is philosophically necessary. Arendt owes much to Heidegger in her method and ideas, and her analysis of Eichmann and the theory of the banality of evil are very Heideggerian. But, it is tiring to see a thinker worthy of attention in her own right constantly introduced with reference to a man, especially when the only connection mentioned is a love affair.

However, I did really enjoy seeing both Heidegger and Arendt come to life. Well, except where the former was being portrayed as a bit of a dirty old man. They were both only on the cusp of recording technology, and so there is not a great deal of footage. Fans of Zizek are lucky enough to have tonnes of stuff to watch.

Anyway, the film tracks Arendt through her coverage of the Eichmann trial and the controversy that erupted due to a lot of people not reading it. This, to me anyway, is one of the more fascinating philosophical stories of the 20th Century (okay there isn’t much competition). It’s a story that surrounds the origin of the theory of the banality of evil as the apple falling from a tree does the theory of gravity.

Arendt finds herself confronted with one of the most evil men of her century. And yet, he betrays none of the characteristics that we traditionally expect evil people to have. As such, she finds herself absolutely unable to account for him and falls into philosophical reflection. She becomes genuinely perplexed and genuinely strives to understand him, coming up with a new theory of evil that will explain Eichmann and his behaviour.

Usually, to be evil means you have evil motives and you pursue them. These evil motives are usually selfish. Voldemort, for example, is a traditionally evil character. His motive is immortality. He kills people to attain that motive deliberately and consciously. He selfishly destroys life in order to achieve his own unjust goal.

Arendt finds Eichmann not to be like this at all. He doesn’t seem to even have motives, let alone selfish ones. In fact, one can only describe him as selfless, insofar as he didn’t do what he did for his own benefit, but because he took it to be his duty in the Nazi regime. The counter interpretation is to say that he was killing people simply to save his own skin; if he did the right thing then he would have got killed, so he did the wrong thing. But, Eichmann in Jerusalem is full of long interpretations of his actions that suggest that this was never a real motivation for him. Without in any way defending Eichmann, she argues he did what he did because it was what he was supposed to.

If anything, this is worse than trying to save his own skin. Eichmann was actually happy to obey whatever orders were put in front of him. And, for Arendt, the real worry about him is that he is actually a perfectly normal an unexceptional man. The implication being that any of the vast majority of modern people who were put into that situation would have done exactly the same thing. One recalls the Milgram experiment.

Spoiler alert.

This did not go down well. Coupled with comments that Arendt made implicating the culpability of some of the Jewish leaders in the third reich, she was branded as The Self-Hating Jew, something still tarnishing her reputation today. The film covers this all really well. Towards the very end of the film, Arendt finally speaks out and both points out what she was actually saying and defends what she did say. She seems to have won, and one of her most vehement critics leaves the  room sheepishly.

Arendt then sees sitting in the audience her lifelong friend, Hans, who has not been speaking to her since the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem. It looks like they’re going to reconcile, but they don’t. At the moment of Arendt’s victory in defending herself, her friend disowns her for turning the just trial of one of the perpetrators of the greatest evil of the 20th Century into “a philosophy lesson”. He leaves, remarking “As of today, I am done with Heidegger’s favourite student.”

It raises an interesting question. Are there some things that philosophy just shouldn’t touch? Arendt clearly disagreed. The movie Arendt argues that there is a moral obligation for anyone writing on a great evil to attempt to understand it fully, and in the Eichmann case in particular and many cases in general that requires philosophical thought. But, perhaps the imperative to render everything intelligible regardless of the hurt it causes is problematic. In practice, there are topics I do not go near though I have opinions on them. In either case, if you write about them anyway, you cannot blame the victims for misinterpreting it, even if you have the best of intentions.

Slightly inconclusive, but that’s because the film made me think and I’ve not found a conclusion. That at least shows it to have been an authentically Arendtian film.

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