Defending her words

Second take

It’s lucky for us that the new film on Hannah Arendt isn’t a documentary but a dramatisation of those controversial, embattled days in her life when she had to defend her writing.

Because, let’s admit it, documentaries, with few exceptions, are dreary things. Barbara Sukowa playing Arendt is brilliant and passionate and actually makes talking about ideas a riveting, exciting subject for cinema! It has been a long time since I saw a movie like Hannah Arendt — a talky, intellectual film that doesn’t sacrifice rigour or intensity for the box-office and still ends up being entertaining and reverberating.

In the end, it’s not about just Arendt or her ideas, but about solitude and the life of the mind.In college, her name along with Susan Sontag was often bandied about. There was such aura to them — these women were two of the most powerful intellectuals of the 20th century, and just to be seen with their books gave you extra intellectual cache on the campus. While I did go on to read Sontag, I don’t think I really got into Arendt the way my classmates and friends did. Watching this movie, I regretted not having read her more closely.

Even those who may not have heard of Hannah Arendt will know her bespoke phrase, ‘the banality of evil’. And as one film critic observed, this film gives this much-thrown-around phrase a context where you are able to see more clearly what she meant by this.

Filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta spent several years researching the film. People had been coming up to her and telling her that she should make a film on Hannah Arendt because she had made an acclaimed film on Rosa Luxemburg, the revolutionary socialist. (This role too had been played by Barbara Sukowa). But Von Trotta kept putting it off, fearing the subject was too cerebral, perhaps even controversial.

Her co-scriptwriter, Pamela Katz, also wondered how they could make a movie about a thinker, a philosopher. It would have been easier to make a documentary where expectations of being entertained are low, but how to dramatise ideas?

I think much of the film’s success here lies in Sukowa’s convincing performance as she lights up cigarette after cigarette and talks and writes and thinks. And you can see her thinking. Cleverly, Von Trotta and Katz skirted a biography and zoomed in on those very intense, troubling months in her life when she had to deal with the backlash to the essay she had written in The New Yorker. In focussing on this fiery period in her life, they solved the problem of the movie being dry or abstract and turned it into something cerebral and emotional. Hannah, in this moment, was caught between her thoughts and emotions.

Arendt was a German-Jewish political theorist who studied under Martin Heidegger and was even briefly his lover. She fled Nazi Germany and eventually settled in New York, becoming a very popular teacher and writer.

Then in the early 60s,  she covered the trial of the Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann in Jerusalem. Her perspectives in her The New Yorker essay incensed many Jews, both Zionist and liberal; several of her friends stopped speaking to her, while some did battle with her. What saddened and perplexed Hannah and her husband and her few supporters (many of whom were her loyal students) is how even responsible Jewish thinkers and writers misread what she was saying or getting at.

As is so often the case with a certain kind of fundamentalism, very few actually read the long essay, and fewer read the book this was but a chapter of.

I won’t go into what the controversies were because it is well documented, but after so many decades the whole thing remains fresh and crackling because of how universal this is — to not read the work of a deep thinker carefully and then misunderstand or misconstrue her ideas. And the drama carries a certain contemporary frisson to it for the way it echoes what happens to radical Jews today (like Norman Finkelstein), who critique fundamentalist Zionism and end up being branded like Hannah Arendt as a self-hating Jew.

In one particular way, Hannah Arendt reminded me of E M Forster and his credo of friendship. It is said of Hannah Arendt that she was ‘a genius at friendship’.

When her Jewish mentors, friends and colleagues turned around and asked her how she could not love her own people, her answer usually was: “How right you are that I have no such love, and for two reasons: First, I have never in my life ‘loved’  some nation or collective — not the German, French or American nation, or the working class, or whatever else might exist. The fact is that I love only my friends and am quite incapable of any other sort of love.”

Comments (+)