Selbstdenken, Remembrance, and the Future of Civil Courage in Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt (2012). On the Psychogenesis of the “Banality of Evil”

The essay analyses Margarethe von Trotta’s 2012 biopic Hannah Arendt which focuses on Arendt’s attendance at the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961 as a reporter for the New Yorker, culminating in her controversial depiction of Eichmann as a functionary who epitomised the “banality of evil” in our times. The film has been derided by some as hagiography because it tropes Arendt’s depiction of Eichmann as the visionary idea of a great thinker emerging under prejudicial circumstances. I argue that the film is agnostic about Arendt’s central thesis, instead inviting the spectator to reflect on the importance of civil courage, the willingness to dramatise one’s thought processes and expose one’s deliberations to the public gaze. Arendt’s conception of the ‘banality of evil’ projects beyond the Eichmann case because her students and youthful audience understand its critical potential in an age beset by imperial violence and technocratic instrumentalism.

“If I refuse to remember, I am actually ready to do anything”. (Hannah Arendt, “Responsibility and Judgment”)

The 2012 film biopic Hannah Arendt directed by Margarethe von Trotta, with screenplay by von Trotta and Pamela Katz, has generated an enthusiastic popular and critical reaction but also attracted a great deal of animosity, which goes well beyond aesthetic appraisal of the film as a work of art. There are a number of reasons for this divided response. The film is about one of the most enduringly famous, yet intensely controversial, political philosophers of the twentieth century, the German-Jewish émigré Hannah Arendt (1906-75). Having studied philosophy at the University of Freiburg under Martin Heidegger, a charismatic lecturer with whom she had a brief, passionate affair, Arendt fled Nazi Germany in 1933 after being arrested in Berlin for intelligence activities on behalf of The German Zionist Organization, then led by her friend Kurt Blumenfeld, an important figure in the film. In 1936, in Paris, Arendt met her future husband, the former anti-Stalinist Spartacist and Rosa Luxemburg supporter Heinrich Blücher (1899-1970). In the 1930s Arendt spent a difficult period of stateless exile in Paris where she worked at the Jewish welfare agency Youth Aliyah to prepare imperilled Jewish children to emigrate to mandate Palestine. Arendt was arrested by the French police in 1940 after the Nazis invaded, and spent a period at a detention camp in Gurs in southern France, portrayed in the film as a period of near existential despair, only to escape during an Allied bombing raid. Subsequently Arendt and Blücher were reunited. With Arendt’s mother they emigrated to the United States in 1941 where Arendt spend the rest of her life as a part-time academic, essayist and political commentator, political theorist, and public intellectual in New York, becoming one of the leading political thinkers of her age.

In her seminal study the The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), Arendt contextualised the rise of fascism and Stalinism as a crystallisation of three subterranean streams in Western history since the nineteenth century: anti-Semitism as a secularised political Weltanschaaung; race-thinking founded on pseudo-biological claims and extreme pan-ethnic movements; and an expansionist capitalist imperialism that undermined representative government. Thus Arendt was sceptical of claims of German exceptionalism (Sonderweg) and instead sought to explore Nazism and fascism more generally as manifestations of corrosively anti-political tendencies in Europe that “had finally come to the surface”.

Arendt became convinced that the Second World War was a moral catastrophe that had permanently sundered our faith that existing ethical traditions and value systems were sufficient to protect civilisations “when the chips were down”. So-called morality had collapsed into a set of “mores”, customary behaviours and conventions that could be changed at will according to the requirements of power. [1] In response to a shattered Judeo-Christian Western tradition, Arendt helped revive the agentive focus of neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics, which encourages the habitual cultivation of context-sensitive ethical dispositions supported by the deliberations of practical rationality and acute emotional intelligence. [2] In her post-war thinking Arendt affirmed the civic importance of ethical autonomy, urging related virtues such as healthy scepticism, judgment informed by “taste” and imaginative reflection, and the courage required for civil disobedience. These virtues enacted a “partiality for the world” as a pluralistic public-political space hospitable to varied phenomena, opinions, and interests.

Von Trotta’s film chooses to focus on a pivotal, still resonating episode in Arendt’s life and career. It depicts her decision to travel to Jerusalem and cover the sensational trial of the Nazi SS officer and architect of the Holocaust Adolf Eichmann, who had been captured by Mossad agents in Buenos Aires in May 1960. The film ends with Arendt’s attempts to rebut ad feminam criticisms of her paradigm-shattering conception of “the banality of evil” in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, which appeared in April 1963. The book was initially published as a series of four reports on the trial appearing in The New Yorker in February and March of 1963. Von Trotta’s film ends in late 1963 with a kind of fictionalised Socratic apologia, in which Arendt, in front of a packed auditorium of enthralled tertiary students and doubtful or hostile colleagues, gives a spirited defence of her infamous portrait of Eichmann as a functionary, a self-willed “nobody” who had “renounced all personal qualities” in his careerist ambition to contribute to what he understood to be a world-historical movement.

Referred to in German simply as “Die Kontroverse”, Arendt’s report on the Eichmann trial unleashed a storm of controversy that has never entirely died down. [3] The ferocious criticism over Arendt’s supposedly exonerating portrait of Eichmann quickly turned into a less edifying trial of Arendt’s character and judgment, as ruefully noted in the film by The New Yorker editor William Shawn, who commissioned Arendt’s report on the trial. Arendt was famously accused by a long-term friend and correspondent, the German-Jewish émigré intellectual Gershom Scholem, of having insufficient “Ahavat Israel” or love of the Jewish people, a damning indictment which, in Hannah Arendt, is transposed to the dying Kurt Blumenfeld but is also intimated by former friends who excoriate her as a German intellectual who “looks down on us Jews”. As Roger Berkowitz writes in his commentary on the DVD version of the film, Arendt astounded and appalled much of her readership, particularly the American Jewish community, in arguing that Eichmann was not a sadistic anti-Semite but rather a mediocre “joiner” with a bureaucratic mentality. Arendt recast Eichmann as an obedient servant whose loyalty to the Nazi movement gave him a sense of importance while dulling spontaneous moral reflexes. Notoriously, Arendt claimed that Eichmann, owing to his solipsistic dependence on cliché and sanitised bureaucratic euphemisms, lacked criminal intent or obvious self-interest. Rather he was unable to “think”; to see the world imaginatively and empathically from the standpoint of others, and thus “did not know what he was he doing” in organising and ordering the deaths of millions of Jews. Adi Ophir observes that we are still living in the aftermath of Arendt’s “emptying of the Nazi subject”, no longer something reassuringly atavistic and barbaric as was the assumption at Nuremberg, but a floating signifier: ordinary, insidious, opaque in motivation, more readily defined by privation of the good, perhaps inseparable from the depersonalising processes of modernity itself. [4]

The interest of von Trotta’s film is precisely, as many have recognised, that it is a multifaceted articulation of the mise en scène of Arendt’s developing thinking on the Eichmann affair. The question of interpretation revolves around whether we interpret the film as hagiography or as ironically complicating Arendt’s conception of thought as a deliberative internal conversation that forges the subject as, at the very least, a conscientious objector who refrains from wrongdoing. The presumption is that a thinking person is unable to live with a murderer, that is, themselves: “my conduct towards others will depend on my conduct towards myself”. [5]

After WWII Arendt spoke of the need to “philosophize without banisters” – without the canonical support of existing traditions of metaphysical and epistemological inquiry. What this meant in practice was a sustained critique of the authoritarian proclivities of the “professional thinker” in the Platonic tradition who despises the chaotic volatility of democratic opinion and seeks to support and legitimise tyrants and, in Heidegger’s case, the Führer himself. Arendt made it clear on numerous occasions that she no longer sought the mantle of “a ‘philosopher’ or a professional thinker”. [6] Thinking, she argues in The Life of the Mind, is a matter that can “no longer be left to ‘specialists’ as though thinking […] were the monopoly of a specialized discipline”. [7]

In a venerable yet marginalised conception of thinking embodied in Socrates’ dialogical praxis and revived in Kant, who felt that reason required ‘publicity’ if it was to benefit humanity, Arendt was deeply disturbed by the position that thinking should be the prerogative of a few. [8] For Arendt, thinking is no longer to be identified with metaphysical profundity and the authenticity of an inner essence, but with communicative desire and performative enjoyment, the “urge to display” oneself as a thinking and speaking being: “thinking beings have an urge to speak, speaking beings have an urge to think” (99). Thinking is no longer primarily a cognitive activity but a ceaseless task of self-relation and self-scrutiny that requires an exuberant internal conversation. In arguing for thought as a controlled exercise in self-interrogation, Arendt draws on the Third Earl of Shaftesbury’s enthusiasm for the Socratic dialogue as a model of “self-study”. Shaftesbury had in mind a dramatic contrivance in which thinking divides itself into two characters (say appetitive and rational, enthusiastic and sceptical) that engage in a robust process of “inward converse”. This is an interrogative process of question and response by which, Shaftesbury hoped, one becomes resolute, confident that in one’s firmest opinions one is “the same person today as yesterday and tomorrow as today”. [9] As Arendt put it in The Life of the Mind, “thinking always involves remembrance”, [10] a process of “striking roots” in which a once ethically vacillating subject can thereby “stabilize themselves”. [11]

It is more than likely that Arendt had in mind Heidegger’s treacherous conduct after the Nazi rise to power when she mused that “absence of thought is not stupidity; it can be found in highly intelligent people”. [12] For Arendt thinking is embedded in a world of appearances; it is allied to intersubjective judgment, tact, acculturated taste, and reconciles us to the world rather than encouraging us to pass over into a Platonic universe of intelligible forms. It is the labour of thinking amongst tangible phenomena that helps prepare us for the “timely” faculty of nuanced judgment in which we make important, context-sensitive decisions. Where the professional philosopher despises surface impressions, brackets reality and personifies concepts rather than answering to his or her own experience, there is a vital activity of demotic thinking that is always looking for a concrete historical or textual exemplar available to the senses, a model of representative significance. Thus Arendt placed great store in Socrates as the paragon of the thinker, who unites “apparently contradictory passions, for thinking and acting […] who did not shun the marketplace, who was a citizen among citizens […] claiming nothing except what in his opinion every citizen should have a right to”. [13]

Some prominent critics assume that the film’s portrayal of Arendt’s presence at the Eichmann trial, which she feels has been corrupted by the crude political aims of Israel’s prime-minister David Ben Gurion, betrays a debt to classic legal films like To Kill a Mockingbird (Robert Mulligan, 1962) and Twelve Angry Men (Sidney Lumet, 1957). In liberal dramas like these, a disinterested, self-sacrificing advocate for truth is subject to the hostile partiality of mob opinion. The apparent lionisation of Arendt the “thinker”, granted the prerogative to disdain the obstinate mythologies of the multitude, has proved a provocation. In a review in The New Republic tellingly entitled “Hannah and Her Admirers”, David Rieff argues that the film is little more than a hagiography of Arendt the great thinker or difficult genius, in which opposition to her daring new conception of evil is caricatured as prejudiced vilification. Rieff examples the careerist Thomas Miller, a faculty colleague at the New School University in New York, who sneers what could be called the reductive “campaign” line against Arendt: that she was malicious, had a German-Jewish or “Yekke” disdain towards the Jewish people, and lacked heart: “that’s Hannah Arendt: all cleverness and no feeling” (1.21). Rieff suggests that Arendt’s staunch defence of her convictions is strengthened by the diminution of every other available position on the Eichmann trial. With the exception of her friend and fellow philosopher Hans Jonas, every other challenge to her position, whether from New York intellectuals such as Lionel Abel and Norman Podhoretz, university administrators, sinister Israeli functionaries such as Siegfried Moses, or the anonymous hate mail Arendt receives, is presented either as “grotesque (Abel and Podhoretz), splenetic (the administrators), pathetic (Blumenfeld) or crazed (the neighbor)”.

Rieff comments archly that the students in the New School audience greet her final words with what in the old Soviet Union used to be called “stormy applause.” He assumes a didactic positioning of the audience, which is clearly meant to react the same way as her adoring students, embracing her vanquishment of error, superstition, and bigotry. Rieff judges von Trotta’s film as an artistic failure combining an intellectual ambition to “make Arendt’s ideas comprehensible to a new generation” and an “antiquarian refusal of any dialectical or critical relation to these ideas”. It is a “film about ideas that remains intellectually detached from them”. [14]

Of course the film’s supposed idealisation of Arendt is running into a prevailing headwind: many feel that Arendt was fooled by Eichmann’s performance at the trial and that a recent study, Bettina Stangneth’s Eichmann Before Jerusalem (2011), detailing Eichmann’s Argentina period in the 1950s, is conclusive evidence that he was indeed a fanatical anti-Semite who lamented his inability to complete his “work”, the genocide of the Jewish people. [15] Rieff’s and Ruth Franklin’s reviews are emboldened by this turn of events which seems to have legitimised the initially outraged reaction to Arendt’s controversial thesis and the “malicious” tone in which she wrote. In 2014, the president of the American Historical Association, Jan Goldstein, acerbically described Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem as a “colossal rhetorical failure and maybe a moral failure as well. She has ignored her audience and its personal stake in her subject matter”. [16]

However if we turn to the scholarship now emerging on the film, it tends to position Hannah Arendt as a subtle interrogation of the “psychogenesis” of her analysis of Eichmann that cuts against the grain of her own philosophical and phenomenological postulates about the nature of thinking, ethics, and judgment. For some critics sympathetic to Arendt but unconvinced by her portrait of Eichmann, the film addresses a lacuna in Arendt scholarship. The film’s complex reimagining of Arendt’s thinking as an activity that takes place under emotional strain, in public and quasi-public spaces, and in the midst of agonistic conflicts, may reveal its protagonist as unreliable in accounting for her motivations and serve to complicate her philosophy of thinking as an essentially private activity of recuperative withdrawal that should not be conflated with consequential “action”. Long-time scholars of Arendt, used to debating the contemporary implications of her sometimes idiosyncratic theoretical lexicon, feel that the film only deepens the mystery over her core philosophical thesis of the “banality of evil”. As Richard King argues in Arendt in America (2105) Arendt, in “calling her book ‘a report’, foreswore extended philosophical or ethical reflection altogether”. Thus as King points out, the “philosophical foundations for her judgments or the sources of her ruminations are often hard to pinpoint”. [17] For critics of the film who are more sympathetic to Arendt’s philosophy, the intensity of the rancour surrounding her observations has obscured both the critical presuppositions of her paradigm-changing idea (such as her earlier interest in mass society and its correlatives in alienation, corrosive cynicism, and atomised “worldlessness” as a precondition of totalitarianism) and its possible affective genesis in a traumatic past. They feel that in von Trotta’s film Arendt is not simply depicted as a heroic representative of disinterested thought in the face of hostile opposition but as a political “actor” in the public arena, someone who “discloses [her]self without ever either knowing [her]self or being able to calculate beforehand whom [s]he reveals”. [18]

The film’s screenwriter Pamela Katz’s contribution to a recent special issue of the feminist cultural studies journal dossier makes it clear that her screenplay is intended to help us understand Arendt as a vulnerable human being; with von Trotta she was “committed to shining a light on [Arendt’s] character and emotions”. [19] To understand the character of Arendt it was important to realise that the Eichmann period revealed, more than any other, how “the life of Hannah Arendt as one defined and derailed by exile”. [20] Although facing the Nazi Eichmann in all his shocking banality must have been a deeply troubling personal experience, Katz’s screenplay explores the consequences of Arendt’s refusal to acknowledge that her emotions might have influenced her subsequent observations. While the idea of the “banality of evil” is undeniably the product of her unique genius, writes Katz, the pain of her past certainly “burst through the tone in which she wrote”. Arendt’s insistence that she was relating “facts” was “weakened by the ironic undertow of her writing”. It was this mordant tone, and “not her groundbreaking theory – that unwittingly revealed the pain she hid from everyone. A film focusing on the Eichmann years offered the opportunity to expose the woman behind that tone and the personal turmoil buried beneath her genius”. [21]

Katz’s argument is that Arendt’s interpretation of Eichmann’s elective “inability to think” was startlingly original on an intellectual level and has made an enormous contribution to twentieth century scholarship and moral philosophy. However it revealed an aspect of personality that was more psychically revealing than we realise. Having suffered personal betrayal Arendt was invested in the humanist notion that a vigorous process of lay reflection can help people abstain from evil-doing, or even “condition them against it”. [22] Despite Arendt’s painful realisation that intelligence was no barrier to inhuman behaviour, she still “placed her hopes in the world of thought”. [23] This despite the fact that the very man who had taught her how to “think” (deliciously referred to by Mary McCarthy in faux German accent as Arendt’s “King of Thinking”) had joined the Nazi party. Projecting a passionate thinking that is the prerogative of all and that countermands a profound desire to “function” rather than assume responsibility for others, Arendt “sought protection… She needed to believe that a new understanding of evil could protect her, an understanding as emotional as it was intellectual”. [24]

The important point Katz makes is that in constructing Eichmann and his ilk as the negative image of “thinking”, Arendt was demonstrating her vulnerability to traumatic recollection, not showing off her intelligence as suggested by Norman Podhoretz in an infamous review of Eichmann in Jerusalem, “The Perversity of Brilliance”, which sets off a bitter dispute in the film between Arendt’s detractors and supporters. Through the transferential association of Eichmann with the vacuity of “thoughtlessness” rather than genocidal hatred and personal sadism, Arendt sought “protection from the kind of murderous betrayal that destroyed her country and sent her into exile”. [25] Katz indicates that her poignant screenplay is interested in Arendt’s (in)capacity to care for herself or reconstitute her fragile psyche through the medium of critical thought alone. The spectator is acutely aware of the tension between her Stoic commitment to critical reflection as a way or honouring oneself as a principled being and her obtuse “deafness to the provocative tone of her work” which hints at repressed pain and vulnerability – traumatic wounds that will be sorely tested by the potential onset of a “third exile” incurred by her observations on the Eichmann trial, an exile at its most damaging when it culminates in the loss of lifelong friendships. [26]

In a fine analysis of the film, “Arendt on the Couch”, Bonnie Honig contends more pointedly that Arendt’s determined diminution of Eichmann, her disregard for the received wisdom about his monstrosity, has its psychic origins in Arendt’s need to analytically “master” Eichmann, a figure from her past who loomed as a possible source of re-traumatisation. [27] Honig, like other contributors to this issue, rejects a reading of the film as an adulatory biopic in which Arendt ultimately triumphs as a “speaker of unpopular truths”, enduring the “solitude and isolation that comes from being true to oneself”. Honig’s interest is in the film’s multifaceted presentation of the generative conditions of Arendt’s thinking. She thinks the film illuminates a repetition-compulsion in which Arendt must again and again experience the threat of exile and expulsion, suffer betrayal and the severe testing of friendship, as the very condition of her thinking. [28]

Honig impressively demonstrates that the film interrogates Arendt’s dialogical, interiorised account of thinking. Where Arendt presented thinking as an uncompromising practice of internal conversation between two interlocutory selves that should result in the jettisoning of self-delusion and bad faith, von Trotta’s film may suggest that thinking is a practice “marked by political and psychological experience or trauma” that exceeds conscious deliberation. [29] Honig interprets the film as affirming that thinking happens in and among appearances and events rather than demanding “withdrawal” from the world of appearances as its “essential precondition”. [30] She suggests that in the film Arendt is a locus of repetition-compulsion who courts re-traumatisation as a way of galvanising her thinking in “dark times”; Arendt ultimately puts thinking over friendship because for her thinking is libidinally connected to backlash, adversity and danger. Arendtian thinking is interwoven with eros and provokes and invokes a threshold experience of betrayal and suffering that is part of the “life-world” of thinking. [31] Arendt thinks provocatively in order that she might find herself embroiled in messy situations, thus reliving her character-forging experiences of the early 1930s in which homelessness and isolation were compensated for by an erotics of danger and picaresque adventure. [32] Arendt, according to Honig, seeks out the reassuring pleasure of overcoming the danger of exile with less vulnerability than in earlier encounters, succoured by the loyalty of her husband Heinrich Blücher and redoubtable American friends such as Mary McCarthy. [33]

Following these critics, for the remainder of this I essay I ponder whether the film offers a conception of thought that is neither the manifestation of a heroic individual immune to normative pressures nor a salvific process of mature reflection and consolidating remembrance that stabilises the self and ensures its ethical continuity. With Ariella Azoulay I query whether Arendt’s thinking, which is almost always depicted in and amongst spectators, particularly young people such as her secretary and confidante Lotte Kohler, may rather possess the “revelatory quality of action and speech” which is “carried out in a networked form by whoever participates in it”. [34] I follow Azoulay’s point that in making the film von Trotta and Katz had to begin by disregarding Arendt’s conception of thinking as a distinct form of human activity that “does not manifest itself outwardly” and has a “very restricted impulse to communicate to others”. [35] Arendt’s model of thinking as harmonising and stabilising the self through introspection, offering respite from the urgent need to disperse oneself as various personae in the public sphere, is perhaps, as Azoulay points out, always already complicated by the cinematic medium itself, which focuses on Arendt’s thought processes in the midst of agonistic disputations, disruptive encounters, and conflicting emotional and political exigencies.

Pamela Katz’s interest in Arendt’s post-Enlightenment faith in intellectual deliberation as dissuasion from evil-doing affirms Richard King’s judgment of the film: that it does not adjudicate whether Arendt was right or wrong about Eichmann but emblematises the importance of public virtues such as civic courage. Arendt is depicted as standing for herself and for anyone “who insists on asserting her right to express her opinions publicly”. In its adumbration of the future awaiting the young people Arendt addresses, the film is thus less about thinking as a privative process that helps a gifted genius to gestate an epochal idea and more a representation of Arendt’s conception of politics: “speaking and acting before others about matters having to do with the public realm”. [36] As King argues, this is a film that “places the argument for the expression of ideas in public at its center”. [37]

I agree but I would add that the film has a particular interest in the spectatorship of young people as witnesses to history. They are present at, watch, and contribute to Arendt’s maturing deliberations on the banality of evil throughout the film. In the early 1960s, with the US soon to enter the Vietnam war and with a very young Israeli nation soon needing to decide whether it will be a democratic polity or an expansionist colonial power, the film continually draws attention to the presence of youthful spectators. Children and young people are present in many of the scenes in which Arendt thinks about, converses on, and struggles to articulate an emerging philosophical idea, that will prove of immense value to scholars, writers, artists, historians, sociologists, psychologists, philosophers, and film-makers, as they attempt to make sense of the ubiquity of malfeasance in their own societies. Where Rieff assumed that the students simply support Arendt’s philosophical arguments, their applause might convey a more profound, prospective appreciation of the applicability of the “banality of evil” to a variety of ever-present human behaviours from apathy, ambition and conformism to cowardice and self-delusion. These inert and automatised modes of relating to self and other support the machinations of the powerful and discourage concerted political resistance.

Arendt’s Men in Dark Times is a book of biographical portraits often tacitly referenced in the film, as when Arendt’s husband Heinrich Blücher wonders whether Arendt’s attendance at the Eichmann trial will return her to the “dark times”. Arendt’s implicit response is to demonstrate the value of Selbstdenken, thinking for oneself, in public and political terms. In Men in Dark Times Arendt praised the Enlightenment-era dramatist, philosopher and aesthetician Gotthold Ephraim Lessing as an exemplar of Selbstdenken as a mode of thinking without “ideological crutches” which, in its need to communicate with a projected audience, displays a constant reference to the world. Selbstdenken is not, Arendt argues, a form of thinking that is a “manifestation of a self” or implies a Stoic “retreat” into a sovereign subject independent of external vicissitudes. Individuals, created for “action, not ratiocination”, elect such a manner of thinking because they wish to move “in the world in freedom”. [38] Thus Lessing was less preoccupied with the “results” of his thinking in the form of conclusions or solutions to problems than with stimulating “others to independent thought”. [39] Anticipating dialogue, Lessing was “concerned with the effect [of his action and speech] upon the spectator, who as it were represents the world”. [40]

If we turn to the film’s illumination of Arendt’s Selbstdenken as it takes shape in the midst of increasing tensions and excitement about her provisional observations upon Eichmann’s mediocrity, we can now understand her emerging thinking on Eichmann as invested in its worldly effects, particularly in preserving freedom of thought in an increasingly close-minded post-war world that threatens to limit her choices to being either a friend or enemy of Israel and the Jewish people. On more than one occasion Hans Jonas and later Kurt Blumenfeld attempt to co-opt Arendt’s report on the Eichmann trial by impressing upon her the importance of “one of us” ie. Jews, reporting on it. Presumably Arendt is tasked by her paternalistic interlocutors with not only demonstrating the horrors of the Holocaust but its significance as the culmination of transhistorical Gentile anti-Semitism. Arendt’s resistance to blandishments of this kind, which are simultaneously threats to subordinate her intellectual freedom to ethnocentric imperatives, manifests in fierce displays of Selbstdenken in which she replies strongly but also jokes, parries, deflects, and queries. Arendt’s performed Selbstdenken seems concerned with the suasive effects of her comportment on younger spectators as they negotiate an era in which the Holocaust has demonstrated that older religious and philosophical traditions have proven powerless to prevent the moral “collapse of respectable society”.

Arendt enacts her emerging thinking on Eichmann and the nature of evil in public spaces from classrooms at the New School to cafes in Jerusalem and soirées in her apartment, spaces in which inquisitive younger spectators are ubiquitous. Her highly disputatious but also witty and inclusive public display of disagreement with would-be male lovers and guardians is likely a response to a key scene in the film in which Arendt, at around 18 years of age, was seduced by the 35-year-old, married Heidegger in his office. In a critical scene Heidegger, in order to forge intimacy and complicity, insists that thinking is a “lonely business” for kindred souls, its worldly consequences none of their concern. It is no accident that when Arendt ruefully recalls one of the judges saying to Eichmann that “if there had been more civil courage then things would have turned out differently”, the film immediately segues to Heidegger’s first private meeting with an awestruck younger Arendt. Young women, assumed in that era to be modest and decorous in public, will need an exemplar of spirited independence, without deference, if they are to refuse co-optation and betrayal by the men in their lives.

Like the subject of her habilitation, Rahel Varnhagen, Arendt is a Jewish female salonnière in von Trotta’s film; her New York apartment is not a private residence but a convivial space for intense conversation between émigré intellectuals who heatedly discuss issues of concern in their native German tongue. In most of the scenes in the apartment Arendt’s conversation and musings are in the presence of her young secretary Lötte Kohler, played by Julia Jentsch, an actor whose earlier incarnation as the great figure of conscientious resistance to the Nazis in Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (2005) inscribes with greater significance her wry expression and appreciation for Arendt’s independence of mind. When Arendt comments that Eichmann was not demonic, but “unable to think”, Lotte is enthusiastic. She “loves” the much stigmatised phrase because, I would hazard, she appreciates that Arendt’s conclusions will renew understanding and transgenerational inquiry into the Holocaust, always in danger of combative ethnocentric appropriation by conservatively minded, self-appointed representatives of its uniqueness. Arendt refuses to work in Blücher’s office so that she can remain in the busy living area of the apartment, working closely with Lotte, her disciple, friend, protector, and later trustee and literary executor. Where Arendt seeks out Lotte’s opinion, Heinrich sees her as an intermediary that can help him conduct discrete affairs. This she pointedly refuses to do. In Arendt’s apartment, Lotte is sitting directly behind Hans Jonas, carefully captured in shot, as he boasts of his military duty and intones with aggressive self-satisfaction that “one of us” will be present to report on this “great trial”, a fundamental breach of the salon’s appreciation of diverse opinion and its cultivation of the individual.

Examples of young people as “witnesses to history” abound in the film. When, early in the film, Arendt and her ailing friend Kurt Blumenfeld are discussing in the streets of Jerusalem whether Eichmann is the “predator” Blumenfeld depicts or a stunning mediocrity, a “ghost” with a cold, the camera lingers in close-up on two very young female Israeli soldiers leaning against a wall as they walk past. The soldiers then walk up the steps behind them as the conversation progresses. Only minutes earlier in the film Arendt had been reminded that the trial is important for Israel’s youth, who have to know what the Nazis did. Sadly Israel’s youth are wont to presume the concentration camp survivors are either cowards who failed to resist or “criminals” and “whores”, that is, so-called privileged survivors. A wary Arendt asks Blumenfeld whether the bombastic prosecutor Gideon Hausner is best placed to help Israel’s young understand what their parents suffered. Here we have an indication that Arendt may later offer her reflections on the meaning of the Jerusalem trial by writing against a nationalist narrative predicated on a binary of perpetrator and victims, a narrative that encourages younger Jews to see themselves as real or potential victims regardless of geo-political context.

In her final apologia in the New School auditorium, the camera frequently cuts to an unnamed young woman, identified as “Elizabeth” in the credits, who is in raptures at Arendt’s proud, defiant defence of her analysis of Eichmann. Arguably Elizabeth is less preoccupied with Arendt’s philosophical thesis, than her insistence on the dreadful moral consequences of being a nobody, of refusing to be a thinking “person” who makes calibrated choices about how they will appear in the world. Arendt argues resoundingly that given the totality of moral collapse in Europe amongst both persecutors and victims, which includes the behaviour of some Jewish Councils, it is “profoundly important to ask these questions” of ethical behaviour in “dark times” when morals so easily reveal themselves as “mores”. Understanding, Arendt argues, is “not the same as forgiveness”. It is the responsibility of anyone who wants to put pen to paper on the subject. The camera pans to Elizabeth who is fascinated but also intrigued as to why Arendt discussed the Holocaust as a “crime against humanity”, perhaps presaging the dedication of her own generation to ensuring genocide is judged within the framework of international law.

Now talking prospectively, in front of a young audience who will soon contribute to the libertarian and anarchist strains of the New Left as it challenged the “ideological crutches” of pseudo-scientific Marxist dogma, Arendt argues that the manifestation of the wind of thought is not knowledge but the ability to discern right from wrong, “beautiful from ugly”. To perform thinking in public is not to express one’s interiority but to evince discernment as required by a conversational context. Arendt impresses on her overwhelmingly youthful audience that “thinking gives people the strength to prevent catastrophes in those rare moments when the chips are down”. The eager and sustained applause focuses on the enraptured Elizabeth, who looks to those beside her, beaming and desirous of confirmation of her own elated feelings. The film itself has already amply demonstrated the perfidy of Arendt’s New School colleagues who abandon her at the first pretext, while a scene subsequent to her public address will show her eating alone at the staff cafeteria. I think King is right that the support by young people for Arendt in the film is a “worldly” response, indeed a manifestation of Selbstdenken, to Arendt’s historically pregnant “betrayal” by friends and colleagues. They admire her willingness to assume responsibility for free inquiry and to enact civil courage in the immediate aftermath of McCarthyism.

In celebrating a public speech that clearly evinces great pain at the offence Arendt has caused and the calumny she has endured, Elizabeth and Lotte stand ready to uphold her role as provocateur in the Socratic manner. As Arendt argued, “to make a decision is not to react to whatever qualities are given me, but to make a deliberate choice among the various potentialities of conduct with which the world has presented me”. [41] While I can certainly agree with viewers of Hannah Arendt that it complicates Arendt’s sanguine conception of thinking as a function of lucid self-consciousness, it nevertheless “thinks with” her, illuminating thought as an activity that is sceptical, courageous and receptive to its historical moment, capable of “striking roots” in an unresolved past that demands a continual reckoning.


[1] Hannah Arendt, “Some Questions of Moral Philosophy,” in Responsibility and Judgment (New York: Schocken Books, 2003), p. 54.
[2] See Martha Nussbaum, “Virtue Ethics: a Misleading Category,” The Journal of Ethics 3 (1999): p. 163.
[3] For an account of the controversy see Anson Rabinbach, “Eichmann in New York: the New York Intellectuals and the Hannah Arendt Controversy,” October 108 (2004): pp. 97-111.
[4] Adi Ophir, “A Barely Visible Protagonist,” differences 26:2 (2015), 116.
[5] Arendt, “Some Questions of Moral Philosophy,” p. 96.
[6] Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind (London: Secker and Warburg, 1978), 3. See also “’What Remains? The Language Remains’: A Conversation with Günter Gaus, in Hannah Arendt, The Last Interview and Other Conversations (New York: Melville House, 2013), pp. 1-38.
[7] Arendt, Mind, p. 13.
[8] Arendt, Mind, p. 13.
[9] The Earl of Shaftesbury, ‘Soliloquy, or Advice to an Author’, in Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times [1711] (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 84, p. 124.
[10] Arendt, Mind, p. 78.
[11] Arendt, “Some Questions of Moral Philosophy”, p. 95.
[12] Arendt, Mind, p. 13.
[13] Arendt, Mind, p. 167.
[14] David Rieff, “Hannah and her Admirers”, The Nation, December 19, 2013. Ruth Franklin’s review of Hannah Arendt, “Hannah Arendt, directed by Margarethe von Trotta.” Salmagundi 178/9 (2013): pp. 25-32, concurs with Rieff’s assessment of it as a conventional and falsifying biopic.
[15] Bettina Stangneth, Eichmann before Jerusalem: the unexamined life of a mass murderer (Random House, 2014). For a review of Stangneth’s book that assumes it has put paid to Arendt’s interpretation of Eichmann see Richard Wolin, “The Banality of Evil: the Demise of a Legend,” Jewish Review of Books, Fall 2014; for a critique of Wolin see Seyla Benhabib, “Who’s on Trial? Eichmann or Arendt?”, in The New York Times, September 14th, 2014, []
[16] Quoted in Richard H. King, Arendt and America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), p. 307.
[17] King, Arendt and America, p. 304.
[18] Arendt, The Human Condition, quoted in Ariella Azoulay, “Arendt’s Guidelines for a Fictionalized Cinematic Portrait,” differences 26, no. 2 (2015), p. 126.
[19] Katz, Pamela, “But She’s a Thinker,” differences 26, no. 2 (2015): p. 89.
[20] Katz, “Thinker”, 87, p. 89.
[21] Katz, “Thinker”, pp. 89-90.
[22] Arendt, The Life of the Mind 5, qtd. in Katz, 90.
[23] Katz, “Thinker”, p. 90.
[24] Katz, “Thinker”, p. 91.
[25] Katz, “Thinker”, p. 91. S. Michael Steinberg speculates that Arendt’s ‘philosophical trial of Eichmann’ became her ‘vicarious trial of Heidegger’: Arendt’s acerbic expression of disillusionment towards Eichmann’s banality, her protestations of the need for ‘sovereign laughter’ in the face of his comic and contorted officialese, is a transference owing to her psychic need to work through Heidegger’s betrayal. See Steinberg, “Seeing Hearing Thinking: Introducing the differences Dossier on Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt,” differences 26, no. 2 (2015), 65. I agree that the film suggests that Arendt’s dumbfoundedness at Heidegger’s Nazism, and the grotesque evasions he offers during their 1950 reunion, is the kind of ‘unclaimed’ traumatic experience that could only be worked through by repositioning Eichmann as an acute instance of a pervasive social phenomenon.
[26] Katz, “Thinker”, p. 92.
[27] Bonnie Honig, “Arendt on the Couch,” differences 26, no. 2 (2015): pp. 93-105
[28] Honig, “Arendt on the Couch,” p. 95.
[29] Honig, “Arendt on the Couch,” p. 93.
[30] Arendt, Mind, p. 78.
[31] Honig, “Arendt on the Couch,” p. 95.
[32] See some of Arendt’s responses in the Gaus interview.
[33] Honig, “Arendt on the Couch,” p. 97.
[34] Ariella Azoulay, “Arendt’s Guidelines for a Fictionalized Cinematic Portrait”. differences 26, no. 2 (2015), p. 122.
[35] Arendt, “Responsibility and Judgment,” 8, qtd, in Azoulay, “Arendt’s Guidelines for a Fictionalized Cinematic Portrait,” p. 123.
[36] King, Arendt and America, p. 303.
[37] King, Arendt and America, p. 303.
[38] Hannah Arendt, “On Humanity in Dark Times: Thoughts about Lessing,” in Men in Dark Time (New York: Harvest Books,1983), p. 9.
[39] Arendt, “Dark Times”, p. 10.
[40] Arendt, “Dark Times”, p. 7.
[41] Arendt, Mind, p. 37.

About the Author

Ned Curthoys

About the Author

Ned Curthoys

Ned Curthoys is Senior Lecturer in English and Cultural Studies at the University of Western Australia. His first monograph The Legacy of Liberal Judaism: Ernst Cassirer and Hannah Arendt’s Hidden Conversation (2013) has recently been released in paperback. He is currently working on a project examining the historiographical and creative legacy of Arendt’s theory of the ‘banality of evil’.View all posts by Ned Curthoys →