Monday, 27 January 2014

Hannah Arendt, the banality of evil, and the state of EU cinema

A worthy film, one that should be seen rather than one that wants to be seen. This EU-funded bio-pic of German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt is interesting on many planes, but it does not in itself make for a good Hollywood-style cinema-going experience.

But see it you should, if you follow this blog. There are some deep questions at the very heart of it - which I won't go into immediately - they are not ladled out thick as they would be in Hollywood, they are left embedded within the film's structure for you to ponder on the day after, or the day after that.

Hannah Arendt, the Jewish student and lover of Martin Heidegger, who joined the Nazi party a few months after Hitler comes to power. She flees Nazi Germany for France, only to interned by the Vichy regime; she manages to escape and make it to America, where she has a glittering career as an academic philosopher. In 1962, after Adolf Eichmann is captured by Israeli special forces in Argentina and brought to Jerusalem for trial, she volunteers to cover the proceedings for New Yorker magazine.

What emerges (eventually) from her coverage of Eichmann's cross-examination proves to be sensational. Firstly, this Jewish woman who herself managed to escape the Holocaust, relates that Eichmann is not the incarnation of evil itself, rather a petty bureaucrat whose entire raison d'etre was to carry out orders; a small cog in a large machine who had subsumed himself into it because he had no mind of his own, a man who desperately needed to belong. Secondly, this Jewish woman dared suggest to the world that had the Jewish communities across Europe been less well organised, fewer Jews would have died, as the Judenrate collaborated with the Nazis to a certain extent, drawing up deportation lists for them.

These conclusions she reached watching the Eichmann trial, which the film shows us, cutting from colour to the original black and white footage of the actual event; the witnesses breaking down emotionally, and Eichmann's detached observation of his own trial that would lead to his inevitable death by hanging.

The film shows the shock that the publication of the serialisation of her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil had stirred up in 1960s America. Ostracised by her fellow Jews, academics and intellectuals, she felt obliged to defend herself to her students, the penultimate scene in the film.

Today, Hannah Arendt's narrative of Eichmann and the Nazi genocide machine stands the test of time; it is the evil of an ideology based on hatred that managed to conquer a nation that turned small, weak men, followers, into mass-murderers on an industrial scale. They merely wanted to fit in, to be accepted, by following orders, even if it meant inhuman barbarity unprecedented in human history. The role of the Judenrate is still a contentious issue for Holocaust scholars.

The film toggles backward and forward between German and (American) English; the academic world of America in the 1960s, with cocktail parties where groups of Jews would converse with one another in German - not Yiddish nor Hebrew - is nicely shown, with shades of Mad Men. Hannah (who died aged 69 of a heart attack) was a heavy smoker, as were many of the other characters; her husband Heinrich Blucher, is shown smoking heavily and over-eating and having an aneurism.

Was Hannah Arendt a heartless, haughty intellectual, looking down at eastern European Jewry as being unsophisticated and disorganised? Or was she looking at the Holocaust from a different point of view altogether - that of a philosopher rather than as a survivor?

It is an interesting film that thinking people should see, and ponder upon and question. It is not entertainment in the Hollywood sense. It is something that the European Union would like people to see, and as such it has subsidised the production to a large extent. This is not something the USA believes in. Historical films that further the American narrative are financed by people who would like to make money out of it - be they Oliver Stone (JFK, Nixon) or John Wayne (Green Berets, The Alamo)

Europe, however, has a darker and more complex narrative. And so the EU feels the need for it to be discoursed using public money. With public money comes looser scripting and direction. We see touches of it in Hannah Arendt - the three Princeton academics who persecute her after her articles are published - indeed many of the secondary actors are wooden and two-dimensional.

And indeed it was in Princeton, where Hannah Arendt lectured before her death in 1975, that a young Joel Coen studied philosophy; it is interesting to ponder whether he took classes with her (his senior thesis being about Wittgenstein). Worth noting that Arendt's last book, published posthumously, was entitled The Life of the Mind - recall the scene in the Coen Brothers' Barton Fink where 'Madman' Mundt is running through the flaming hotel corridor repeating "I'll show you the life of the mind".

And there's Stanley Milgram, the American Jewish psychologist from Yale, who knew Hannah Arendt... Inspired by her account of Eichmann 'only following orders', he came up with the famous Milgram experiment, in which volunteer students were ordered to give massive electric shocks to fellow students - up to 450 volts - to see how much pain people could inflict on other people if they were told to do so. Milgram's name carries through to the Coen Brother's A Serious Man; Don Milgram, Larry's lawyer.

Somewhere between Hollywood and Europe lies the cinema of the Coen Brothers; intellectual, academic, yet entertaining; replete with the wisdom of life, funny, quotable.

Their latest film, Inside Llewyn Davis, is out any day now, so I'll be off to see that before too long.

This time last year:
Snow scene into the sun

This time two years ago:
More winter gorgeousness

This time three years ago:
New winter wear - my M65 Parka

This time four years ago:
Winter and broken-down trains

This time five years ago:
General Mud claims ul. Poloneza

This time six years ago:
Just when I thought winter was over...

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