Every Day: War is no longer declared,/only continued — Ingeborg Bachmann
Where a great proportion of the people are suffered to languish in helpless misery, that country must be ill policed, and wretchedly governed: a decent provision for the poor, is the true test of civilization — Samuel Johnson
Dear friends and readers,
In the feature Von Trotta says she had wanted to make film about Arendt for a long time, but was stopped because this was the story of a thinking woman, a woman who spent her life thinking passionately and then writing about it. She did succeed in making an absorbing thoughtful movie on just this theme, though the way it’s done is to thread into much of the story (I tell below) with scenes of Arendt lying on her bed smoking and (presumably) thinking, walking in woods smoking (and presumably …) or at her typewriter. We get little about her earlier background, and only so much of her autobiography as sheds light on her experience of Nazism: she was fortunate enough to escape.
Although I know I’m not qualified to write about Margarthe von Trotta’s thought-drenched portrait of Hannah Arendt in a film named after her because I’ve read only excerpts from her essays or brief essays about her (often semi-hostile or not quite comfortable) and have just begun Elizabeth Young-Bruehl’s Hannah Arendt: for love of the world (biography), still since I may never get to a level of reading in her or hear or see her talk, I think I can make do on what I do know, as what this blog will be about it is von Trotta’s film.
Allow me to cut to what is important about the film. While von Trotta is known for representing forgotten or marginalized women, or “foremothers” in history:
her film about Arendt is about a centrally important & remembered philosopher whose works include Eichmann on Trial and The Origins of Totalitarianism. And though some love stories provide “beats” in the movies’ plot-design, the central of the movie is Arendt’s thought. In a DVD feature, von Trotta talked about the difficulty of portraying a woman most of whose hours were spent reading, writing and thinking. She also wanted to convey the content of the thinking.
The solution was to move quickly in the film from a depiction of Hannah’s home life and friends, a long time correspondent, Mary McCarthy (Janet von Teer),
Hannah’s long-time happy marriage with a kindred German spirit, Heinrich Blucher (Axel Milberg)
and secretary, Lotte (Julia Jentsch),
a general ambience of her life living in a co-op in Manhattan, teaching at NYC, to the New Yorker invitation to her to write several essays as a reporter. It was the ferocious angry rejection of what Arendt wrote and her response that gave von Trotta her opportunity. In life Arendt carried on writing (as she does in this film) and stood up for her beliefs and her work. In this film she gets into debates with the central figures in her life, e.g., Hans Jones (Ulrich Noenthen) and Kurt Blumenfield (Michael Degan. She explains and defends her choices.
One seemed to me relevant to us here today, whether you live in the US (evolving in the most inhumane and unjust ways as a fascistic oligarchy backed by militarism) or Europe (see, e.g. Perry Anderson’s Italian Disaster, LRB): what is causing the evils we see growing everywhere (from privatizing of all things, hospitals, prisons, schools, the post office): she argues one center of evil comes from the refusal of people to behave as individual human beings with any kind of conscience and obligation to others as human beings. Not recognizing any sense of social reciprocity beyond their obedience to an organization to maintain and rise in their place in it. It’s not fiendish monsters. This idea of Arendt’s that Eichmann was not extraordinary monster provoked outrage. The key to where evil comes from is the idea individuals have no obligation to others. Here’s an economic example:
A story example: Bruno Bettelheim has a story about how real evil occurs between two men sitting in a restaurant where one offers the other a contract for a supposedly strong bridge built cheaply and gets a kick-back knowing the bridge will collapse in a few years (or need heavy repairs).
An economic example: from The Arrogance of Architects in the NYRB, June 5, 2014:
In Dubai, the much-ballyhooed botanical symbol of a sheltering oasis gives way to a more mundane reality. As Moore writes:
The Palm, so impressive when seen on Google Earth, is more ordinary at ground level, where what you see are high walls and close-packed developments that block views of the water. Owners of homes on the fronds found that they faced not so much the sea, as a suburban cul-de-sac penetrated by a tongue of brine.
Moore describes even more unappetizing realities of this dysfunctional fantasyland:
What couldn’t be seen from the helicopter was the crisis in the drains. Dubai’s buildings emptied their sewage into septic tanks, whence they were taken to the Al-Aweer sewage works, on the road out towards the desert and Oman. The sewage works had not kept pace with the city’s growth, and a long line of tankers, some painted with flowers by their Indian drivers, stood for hours in the heavy heat as they waited their turn to offload….
Some drivers, tired of waiting, had taken to pouring their cargo at night into the rainwater drainage system, which discharged straight into the sea. The owner of a yacht club, finding that his business was affected by the sight and smell of brown stuff on the bright white boats, took photographs of the nocturnal dumpings and gave them to the press. The authorities responded, tackling the symptoms but not the cause, by introducing severe penalties for miscreant drivers.
Yet such treatment of migrant workers would scarcely surprise the vast foreign labor force recruited worldwide to construct and maintain the new architecture and infrastructure of Dubai and the other United Arab Emirates, under sometimes appalling and widely documented conditions tantamount to indentured servitude, if not de facto slavery. The preponderance of celebrated architects hired to work in the Gulf States for the “value-added” commercial cachet of their well-publicized names and Pritzker Prizes—including Norman Foster, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, and Jean Nouvel—has led to calls that these respected figures boycott commissions there until laborers’ working conditions, pay, and freedom of movement are markedly improved.
However, despite the numerous horror stories about this coercive exploitation, some big-name practitioners don’t seem moved by the plight of the Emirates’ imported serfs. Andrew Ross, a professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University and a member of Gulf Labor, an advocacy group that is seeking to redress this region-wide injustice, earlier this year wrote a chilling New York Times Op-Ed piece.1 In it he quotes the Iraqi-born, London-based architect Zaha Hadid, who designed the Al Wakrah stadium in Qatar, now being built for the 2022 World Cup. She has unashamedly disavowed any responsibility, let alone concern, for the estimated one thousand laborers who have perished while constructing her project thus far. “I have nothing to do with the workers,” Hadid has claimed. “It’s not my duty as an architect to look at it.”
She also devoted a number of pages to the leading well-connected and better-off Jewish leaders who colluded with the Nazis, making it easy for the Nazis to round up poor Jews and send them off to their deaths. Like Eichmann, they claimed innocence, but on other grounds: they denied knowing a massacre and enslavement were what awaited deported Jewish people. Others less well-placed did not flee because they could not or kept hoping that they would not have to (and leave a life-time’s work behind). She was accused of blaming all Jews, of blaming the victims — she was explaining the social psychology of what happened.
These are but two of the debates the film manages to convey without becoming at all a didactic costume drama where characters talk in unreal abstract preach-y ways. Also dramatized briefly is Hannah’s affair with Heidegger (Klaus Pol), a Nazi, anti-semite some said, her mentor in college, and his idea that what we flatter ourselves is thought logical thought is not; it’s ideas going through our heads as we remain alive. We see her talk with her husband, Heinrich about people politics; with William Shawn (Nicholas Woodson) about editing the New Yorker articles and Shawn talk with his staff about what the average New Yorker reader understands and wants to read.
Three men at the New School who hired her become implacable enemies (fearful for their school reputation).
All this is embedded in a woman’s life. The director a woman, the scriptwriter, Pam Katz, the producer, Bettina Brokemper. I enjoyed the story-line which represents another alternative script-type from Syd Field — this one personal and cylical as we watch Hannah’s relationships with her women friends and then each male, sometimes in a flashback, sometimes re-met today as older people who go back together. Her husband has an aneuryism and she’s terrified of losing him. He does seem to recover. It’s said Sukowa is one of von Trotta’s favorite actresses for her films: in this one became Arendt — chain-smoking away, going through phases of existence and writing. A friend Diane R had alerted me to the existence of the movie on Women Writers Across the Ages (at Yahoo) when she wrote:
It wasn’t a great movie, too episodic, too polemic in spots, too wooden in other spots, hampered by its clunky attempts to be faithful to history, but I very much appreciated its depiction of Arendt as a middle aged woman who is relentlessly presented as no longer beautiful but who is nevertheless a full human being with a full life. While not sexualized in a Hollywood way, she is yet clearly sexual to her husband (or partner), and while she is attacked over her Eichmann in Jerusalem book, she is never humiliated. No woman in the movie is humiliated. Although Arendt has a young, pretty assistant, and at the beginning of the movie Arendt’s friend implies that Arendt’s husband/partner must be having an affair with a student, the set up of older woman betrayed by younger woman never comes to pass.
So many movies make older women into figures of ridicule (Grand Budapest Hotel the most recent.)
A great deal of money was spent. It was a long-time germinating and took a long time to do. It was filmed in New York City, in Jerusalem, in parts of Germany. The costumes and hair-does of the sixties, the furniture, the student ambience. The way TVs worked. There was real care to imitate the look and arrangement of the rooms (their uses) and furniture in the last Riverside Drive apartments (all taken precisely from Young-Buehl’s book). Each room had several functions, all had books and places to write and places to sit and talk with friends. And it’s all there.
Perhaps the strongest stroke of inspired genius was to work in the real footage of Eichman himself in Jerusalem. He was creepy: his face twisted with humiliation and anger as he faced people he had treated as “vermin.”
I felt his arrogance and disdain. It was chilling, like someone out of Dr Strangelove. As Hannah and Heinlein say in the movie, the trouble with hanging him is it doesn’t get near to what might be an adequate punishment without becoming barbarians ourselves.
Other characters in the film have stories like that of Hannah: Fran on our WWTTA list also wrote the “Zionest Kurt von Blumenfeld the fatherly figure also turns from her on his deathbed, and was a writer, a survivor of the Holocaust himself, who wrote the memoir, Not all of them were murderers. A childhood in Berlin describing the way he and his mother escaped deportation and the gas chambers by assuming false identities and living with non-Jewish friends for the duration. His father wasn’t so fortunate: he died as a result of the torture he experienced in Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Degen’s memoir has also been turned into a film.”
I mean to read (if I had spirit enough and time) Eichmann in Jerusalem, the book that was published from the six New Yorker articles. Origins of Totalitariansm: (from Publishers’ Weekly): “she discusses the evolution of classes into masses, the role of propaganda in dealing with the nontotalitarian world, the use of terror, and the nature of isolation and loneliness as preconditions for total domination. (e.g., Republicans in Tennessee outlawed any further money for public transportation; US cities are rebuilt to put middle and lower middle class people out of the center and with little public transportation.) The film has provided a basis for seminars in studies of Arendt.