Adolf Eichmann was a high-ranking member of the SS who played a crucial role in facilitating the logistics of the Holocaust. It was Eichmann who organized the deportations of Jews and Roma from Nazi-occupied and allied countries to the death camps in the East. When the war ended, he successfully evaded capture and fled to Argentina, where he lived until 1960, when agents of the Israeli intelligence organization, the Mossad, kidnapped him and brought him to Israel to stand trial for his crimes. Now, this is where Hannah Arendt enters the picture. Arendt was a German Jewish philosopher who had fled Nazi Germany, first to France, where she was interned at the Gurs detention camp, then to the United States before the implementation of the “Final Solution.” In 1960, she travelled to Israel at the behest of The New Yorker, hoping to gain an understanding of the monstrous evil she expected to find in Eichmann. As the trial progressed, however, it became increasingly clear to Arendt that Eichmann was not a “monster,” at least not in the conventional sense. He was, in fact, profoundly normal and not particularly intelligent; he was capable of speaking only in clichés, which for him served as a substitute for actual thought. He was a bureaucrat and saw himself first and foremost as a member of an organization—in which he sought to achieve advancement for the sake of his personal prestige—and he was doing what he was told. From this, Arendt articulated her famous concept of “the banality of evil,” which has unfortunately become something of a cliché in its own right. Arendt found Eichmann’s normality to be in its own way quite horrifying, as it suggested that there were plenty of other seemingly normal bureaucrats out there who would be capable of the same kind of catastrophic evil.
Von Trotta’s film begins with an introduction to Arendt’s intellectual life in New York—a busy social calendar taken up by writers like Mary McCarthy, her colleagues at the New School, where she taught, and fellow German-Jewish émigrés. It then takes us through Eichmann’s trial and hits the key points in the book that resulted from it, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. This first half or so of the film plays very much like respectful biopic, anchored by an engaging performance from Barbara Sukowa as Arendt (in fact, all the German actors are fine; by contrast, the American actors in this film are almost without exception terrible). It is in the second half of the film that the action becomes much more compelling. Arendt’s report on the trial is serialized in The New Yorker and it unleashes a torrent of hatred and misrepresentation.
Allow me to elaborate. One of the most disturbing elements discussed in Eichmann in Jerusalem is the role played by Jewish leaders in the Holocaust. According to Arendt, when Eichmann and his associates brought the “Final Solution” to a country, one of their first actions was to establish Jewish Councils of Elders (judenräte), Jewish leaders who could serve as intermediaries between the Nazis and the Jewish people. They used these councils to facilitate the acquisition (read: theft) of Jewish property, the concentration of Jews into ghettoes and camps, and finally the deportation of Jews to death camps in the East. In many cases, the last Jews to be deported in a territory would be the members of the councils themselves, although they too were usually sent to their deaths. Now, as one can imagine, this business of Jewish leaders being made to be complicit in the destruction of their own people was not palatable to most Jews in 1960 (or to many non-Jews, for that matter).
Well, palatable or not, the existence of these Jewish councils is a well-attested historical fact, they are in the major historiographical works on the Holocaust, and they came up repeatedly in the Eichmann trial, and Arendt duly included them in her report on Eichmann. And a firestorm erupted. People, many of whom hadn’t actually read her New Yorker articles or the book released shortly thereafter, accused her of “blaming the victim” and asserting that the Jews shared responsibility for the Holocaust. On top of this, her insistence that Eichmann was not a monster was viewed by many—again, this included a number of people who hadn’t actually read the articles—as being a defense of Eichmann. And von Trotta’s film depicts these attacks on Arendt in a profoundly disturbing fashion. We see her inundated with hate mail, her colleagues insulting her to her face, close friends breaking ties with her, Israeli agents threatening her. Just as in The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, we see a self-righteous mob fired by the conviction that it has the right to destroy a person based on rumors and slander. One is reminded of the Rushdie case, in which crowds of people turned on a writer because of their outrage over a book they hadn’t read.
Arendt is repeatedly accused of coldness and arrogance for refusing to allow her emotions to cloud her judgment of Eichmann. As for the matter of the Jewish Councils, nobody tries to contest their existence; they just wish Arendt had had the good taste and respect to gloss over them. To see the veneer of civility drop away as it does in the attacks on Arendt is deeply unsettling. In the end, she has little consolation other than the knowledge that she faced the truth and didn’t shy away from it. Perhaps that is the responsibility of the philosopher. But it is a lonely consolation.