by Belle McIntyre
What a fascinating woman. Charismatic, worldly, immensely intellectual and most of all fearless in her pursuit of truth through pure reason. Born of a secular German Jewish family in Linden, Germany, as a student she studied with the illustrious existential philosopher Martin Heidegger, (with whom shesubsequently had a passionate affair). In her interview with him when asked why she wanted to be his pupil she replied: “I want you to teach me to think”. And what a student she was. For her, thinking was a religion which she embraced with passionate devotion.
At the time the film begins she has been married and divorced, been interrogated by the Gestapo, fled to Paris, been stripped of her German citizenship, interned in Gurs, escaped with the aid of Varian Fry to the United States and granted citizenship. She has taught at Berkeley, Yale, University of Chicago and was the first woman to teach at Princeton. She is married to Heinrich Blucher, a poetry professor at Bard College.
The film takes place in the early 1960‘s during her time as a professor at the New School in New York City. She is part of a loquacious circle of liberal, politically engaged intellectuals which includes the brilliant, outspoken, and fiercely loyal, Mary McCarthy. (played with acerbic razor sharpness by Janet McTeer) Arendt is widely respected as a political theorist and widely published - having written on books on Totalitarianism, Revolution, the Human Condition and the Life of the Mind. So when Adolph Eichmann is captured in Argentina and brought to Israel for trial it is very hard for the The New Yorker to refuse her request to cover the trial, although they tried.
Although she has no illusion that the trial will be even remotely fair, she feels compelled to be a witness to history. What she understands from her exposure to the proceedings is what she termed “the banality of evil”. She does not see Eichmann as some ‘evil genius’ - merely as a pathetically ordinary human being who had surrendered his humanity by ceasing to think or question his actions and therefore allowing himself to do evil deeds without being bothered by conscience. She was not in any way exonerating him for his crimes. And she also included statements about the complicity of the Jewish Councils which were set up by the Nazis to help them carry out their genocidal programs. The articles caused such a furor and a backlash of outrage, denunciations, threats and hate mail to her and The New Yorker. A few of her friends even abandoned her. She was so convinced of her theory that she did not feel a need to defend it until her teaching position was threatened - fully believing that it would pass. When she finally decides to speak out - her statements to her assembled students in the lecture hall are impassioned and yet fully reasoned. She is completely clear and takes back nothing, apologizes for nothing, and brilliantly makes her case. The faculty administrators storm out - but the students erupt with a standing ovation.
Margarethe Von Trotta, working with the brilliant and ever-versatile Barbara Sukowa (Germany’s Merrill Streep), who portrays a woman both cerebral and seductive, has solved the dilemma of filming the activity of thinking as smoking. As all of the characters are intellectuals there is a lot of smoking by one and all. I remember those smoke-filled days before we all became so politically correct. It would seem that the life of the mind has gone up in smoke. Where is she now when we really need her? Where are the rational heads? Our world has become so polarized, emotional and short sighted. We need more people to back off to see clearly, to evaluate and to understand.