Saturday, February 1, 2014

Banality of Evil, Part I

The philosopher Hannah Arendt coined the term "banality of evil" to account for Adolf Eichmann, the fugitive Nazi bureaucrat captured in Argentina and brought to Israel for a trial Arendt covered for the New Yorker magazine. Veteran director Margarethe von Trotta had the gutsy notion that Arendt's formulation of the concept and the anger it provoked were the stuff of cinematic drama, though the association of the concept with the Holocaust probably made the notion seem bankably gutsy. Von Trotta is an elder stateswoman of German cinema, a survivor of the New German Cinema movement that flourished in the 1970s. But Hannah Arendt (2012) may remind film buffs of another German director: William Dieterle, the biopic specialist for Warner Bros. in the 1930s. Arendt is just the latest of von Trotta's biopics, her previous subjects including the martyred Communist Rosa Luxemburg and the medieval abbess Hildegard von Bingen. This latest biopic comes closest to the Dieterle-Warners model: a brilliant underdog comes up with some innovative and controversial idea and must defend it with a big speech against skeptics and haters.

Why is the "banality of evil" idea so controversial? The answer seems to be that most people misunderstood it. Arendt, born and educated in Germany, was fluent enough in English (the film is practically bilingual and star Barbara Sukowa is impressive in both languages) that her meaning should not have been mistaken. She described the banality of evil, but people reacted as if she had denied the existence of evil. Arendt felt challenged to account for the evil deeds of Eichmann, a figure who seemed not just unthreatening but utterly average in his defendant's cage during the trial in Jerusalem. Von Trotta jarringly but wisely decides that there would be no substitute for the real Eichmann if she hoped to make this point; instead of casting an actor to play him, she shows us black and white news footage of the real man while Arendt observes in color. Eichmann in Jerusalem was a sniffly, smirky, stupid figure, and Arendt is surprised by the absence in him of any of the qualities usually identified with evil. Yet he was responsible for the transportation of multitudes to the death camps. What did Arendt, Jewish herself, expect? A raving Hitler-type, foaming at the mouth at the thought of Jews? Eichmann seemed nothing of the sort. Hearing his testimony, Arendt grew convinced that Eichmann had not been motivated primarily by anti-semitism or any personal malevolance.

The "banality" of evil is the absence of malice, seflish ambition, etc. Instead, Arendt deduced, Eichmann was an institutional creature conditioned to do his job without questioning it. This sort of institutional conditioning seemed to make the greatest evils possible in the 20th century. More offensive yet than Arendt's "defense" of Eichmann was her suggestion that a similar sort of institutional mentality, a deference to authority, left the Jews of Occupied Europe too ready to comply with authorities dedicated to their destruction. Had they been less orderly, she argued, fewer may have died. So in her critics' eyes not only was she defending Eichmann (by refusing, supposedly, to label him "evil") but she was blaming Jews for being complicit in their own destruction. For this, she is shunned by many of her academic and social peers until she makes a stand with the big speech in her classroom.

The great fault of Eichmann and anyone else who succumbs to the banality of evil, Arendt decides, is a failure to think. In turn, in von Trotta's film, she is attacked by people who respond emotionally or in partisan fashion to history rather than think objectively about it. In the film, this goes to the extreme of a carload of Mossad agents menacing our heroine and warning her against publishing her book in Israel. For von Trotta, the problem seems to be that people want to particularize evil in a way that minimizes their own susceptibility to it. The Holocaust, for instance, must be seen exclusively as a war against the Jews that can be accounted for entirely with reference to anti-semitism, instead of as something that could have happened to any group of people under the right institutional circumstances. The film's Arendt speaks for the broader, less comforting viewpoint, though von Trotta leaves room for viewers to speculate that behind Arendt's interest in Eichmann is a need to account for the Nazi sympathies of her onetime mentor and lover, the philosopher Martin Heidegger, who likewise shows no sign of archetypal evil. Overall, Heidegger is a minor figure in the film compared to the Americans and Israelis who lash out at Arendt. They come across as no different than the hidebound traditionalists and reactionaries who plagued Dieterle's heroes back in the golden age of Hollywood, and the cliched presentation of their opposition, the ironically unthinking presumption of von Trotta that their opposition is essentially unthinking, makes the picture seem hackneyed at times. It doesn't help that von Trotta wants to use Arendt's real-life American BFF Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer) -- an intellectual in her own right but not in Arendt's league as a thinker -- as a kind of Eve Arden type snarky sidekick who ends up looking silly attending parties where almost everyone but her speaks German. Arendt's American exile is part of the story -- note how the German poster above shows the Chrysler Building to symbolize the U.S., while the film itself announces its title against a shot of the Manhattan skyline, as if to emphasize a deceptive distance from which the heroine observes recent history. It's as if von Trotta is conscious of having made a more "American" film than usual. Hannah Arendt too often seems too old fashioned in a Hollywood way for a director identified with a "New" (albeit now old) school of filmmaking. Despite that, Sukowa carries the film on her back heroically with what may be one of the best bilingual performances ever, and for the most part von Trotta does justice to Arendt's enduring ability to provoke thought. Because of her intellectual ambition, I'm willing to be indulgent toward von Trotta's dramatic flaws. More films should be this ambitious -- and relevant.

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Eichmann's trial took place in the same year as Hollywood's big fictional prosecution of Nazis, Stanley Kramer's Judgment at Nuremberg. Germany's own Maximilian Schell (Austria's, actually)won the Oscar for Best Actor portraying the defense attorney for the film's judicial war criminals, and I've coincidentally heard the news of Schell's death at age 83 while I wrote this review. Schell had been the earliest surviving Best Actor winner, a status now inherited by Sidney Poitier (Lilies of the Field, 1963), and is the first of the famously long-lived Class of 1961 to pass on. Schell's acting career (in English, at least) never lived up to that early promise, and his best-known film after Nuremberg is probably Marlene, the Dietrich interview-documentary he directed about twenty years later. Still, he was an international star of a sort for half a century and his death is worth noting here.
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In Banality of Evil, Part II we'll look at an Oscar-nominated documentary that attempts to give the concept a new meaning that even Hannah Arendt might have to strain to recognize, while begging the question whether the true banality of evil is in the eye of the beholder. Stay tuned.


Jon said...

Fine review. On the whole I like this film and much of it had to do with Sukowa who more often than not, is simply amazing. I love her. I found the story rather interesting as I didn't know much about Arendt. It's a solid work. I have a feeling where you're going next. The Act of Killing is a masterwork. Unforgettable.

Samuel Wilson said...

Jon, Part II will be up later this week. I'm having to think a bit about the next film. By most of the way through I was preparing to pan it but the emotional payoff scene at the end gives me second thoughts.