How to be worldly? Margarethe von Trotta’s ‘Hannah Arendt’

I’ve just returned from watching Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt film. Rather than offer a general overview over Arendt’s life and oeuvre, the film focuses mostly on the scandal surrounding Arendt’s analysis of the Adolf Eichmann trial in Israel. The main role is played by Barbara Sukowa, who also had the lead roles in von Trotta’s Rosa Luxemburg and Hildegard von Bingen films. Having seen Rosa Luxemburg a few weeks prior, it felt like witnessing an alternative biography of the revolutionary socialist (I guess that counts as a Brechtian defamiliarisation fail, but it made me want to write an Austin Powers/Jurassic Park crossover script about scientists cloning Rosa Luxemburg for our times).

The film begins with a snapshot of Arendt’s life in New York in 1960, during which her husband, Heinrich Blücher, and key friends such as Mary McCarthy and Hans Jonas are introduced. Hannah Arendt’s involvement in the trial begins with her discovery of Eichmann’s capture in Argentina and his transfer to Israel for the trial. Arendt volunteers to cover the event for The New Yorker in order to get a chance to experience a Nazi high-up up close. At the trial, shown as original footage, she is instantly stunned not only by what she perceives as a problematic staging, but also by Eichmann’s explanations of his behaviour. Arendt understands him as a ‘thoughtless nobody’, rather than a ‘Mephisto’. From there, she is seen building her concept of the ‘banality of evil’. It is not only this concept which proves unsavoury at the time, but especially her accusation that some Jewish leaders could have prevented some of the extent of the Shoah. Her stance leads her to loose some of her closest friends (Hans Jonas, Kurt Blumenfeld). The film ends with Hannah Arendt insisting on the importance of standing by one’s reading of what goes on in the world, even, or especially, if it runs counter to what the rest of the world thinks.

In Germany, the film has had mixed receptions. About half the reviews criticise it for not pointing out that Arendt was mistaken in her characterisation of SS official Adolf Eichmann as a nobody who just followed orders. As the paper Die Zeit points out, Eichmann’s defense was carefully rehearsed to mask his anti-semitism and active role in exterminating Jews. Other reviews, in turn, criticise the ‘current fashion’ of pointing to Arendt’s mistakes. To their authors, it does not matter whether Eichmann was a bad example or whether Arendt was right or wrong about the actions of some of the Jewish leaders. What matters to them is the observation and analysis of ‘evil’ as a socially produced phenomenon – an end result of the actions of many people who each help the monstrous on the way.

The question that I took to the screening was: what kind of Hannah Arendt do we need for our times? In this respect I was pleased with the emphasis on Arendt’s questioning of the status quo, the accepted narrative. This was emphasised by the recurring theme of ‘thinking’. To me, Arendt’s interpretation of thinking was not ‘unthinkingly’ reproduced as a remedy to social ills, but contrasted with potential dangers and failures, for instance, through flashbacks to her tutelage by/love affair with philosopher and later Nazi supporter Martin Heidegger. While both philosophers placed great importance on thinking – one remembers Heidegger’s assertion ‘The most thought-provoking in our thought-provoking time is that we are still not thinking’ – their actions and struggles clearly highlight limits. In a theatre play on this relationship, which continues to puzzle and disconcert, the actress Carly Wijs concludes ‘[y]ou are only as intelligent as your emotions allow you to be’. In a film review in Die Welt, the interpretation of Arendt’s thinking and action simultaneously suggest the fatalistic ‘if you think differently from everybody else, you remain alone and powerless’ as well as the optimistic belief in the difference an individual can make through thinking unlike everybody else. The film itself hints at the link between thinking and un/consciousness – both at the scale of the individual and the ‘masses’. Arendt views thinking as a discussion between ‘me and myself’ that functions as a form of warning system, of consciousness creation. Whether one agrees with the effectiveness or realisability of such an internal system, the problem of consciousness remains. In the course of the film, it becomes evident that the state of individual and mass unconsciousness regarding some of the mechanics of the war (or war in general, building the connection to our present), persists.

If the film wanted to make this statement about the conscious relation of the individual to their world, it somewhat suffered, from my first impression, from an omission of Arendt’s concept of ‘amor mundi’ (‘love of the world’). While perhaps being a bit of a woolly concept to grasp and communicate, at least as seen from an Earth hugging geographer’s perspective, the film almost came close to spelling it out when Sukowa’s Arendt mentions that she cannot identify with a specific people. In the film, she explains that she cares about her friends, which initially does not come across as a very convincing alternative. It could be argued, however, whether Arendt’s ‘love of the world’ needs to be spelled out in such obvious terms – here, Heidegger’s ‘meditative’ thinking (as opposed to result orientated calculative thinking) also springs to mind, and its emphasis on the relation between that which is close and  the care for the world . The immense task of making that conscious abstraction between oneself, that which is close and the care for the world is stressed in the film through various characters’ limitations, most prominently through the need to represent, perform and meet particular societal expectations (and one’s own expectations) of a Marxist/Jew/German/American/woman/veteran/immigrant/etc. How can one be in and of the world – ‘worldly’? In this sense, the film illustrates how the path to ‘worldliness’ and ‘amor mundi’ must start from the ‘I’ and the questioning of the relation with one’s immediate locatedness. And this question of our un/conscious participation in representation is as important today as it was then.

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