The movie starts with a person screaming for help, trying to escape from being kidnapped in the middle of nowhere at night. Before you proceed to any moral judgments, think. Have a silent conversation with yourself and think deeply and carefully before you act. That’s one of the key ideas of Arendt’s political thought, represented from the publication of her first masterwork The Origins of Totalitarianism (1) (1967) until her last and unfinished trilogy The Life of Mind (1978). Now, what if I told you that the person who has been kidnapped is Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi Party member, an SS Officer responsible for riding the cities of Vienna and Prague off Jews and coordinator of the ‘final solution’ project which led millions of Jews to death camps? What if I also told you that after the defeat of the Nazis, he managed to escape and settled in Argentina until the May of 1960, when Israeli secret service captured him and brought him to Jerusalem to be tried for his crimes? Would you still have the same thoughts?
Thinking is the presupposition of the political being which leads him to an individual action of fundamental importance. The relation between thinking and acting (praxis) is one of Arendt’s main concerns as a political thinker and the main concept of her book that followed her reports of Eichmann’s trial, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963). A book full of profound ideas about the conception of evil; an evil that humanity never experienced before, so unique but incomparably horrific at the same time but also a type of evil as Arendt puts it “neither perverted nor sadistic…but terribly and terrifying normal” (Arendt 1994, 276), just like the figure of Eichmann. Nevertheless her analysis of Eichmann in her book is about evil, Arendt is primarily concerned about the relation between thinking and acting and particularly about the importance of thinking as a political being for the good of the humanity. It is this relation that Arendt asks us to always have in mind in order to comprehend her profound analysis which is cited in her book. And this relation is, in my opinion, also the central idea of Von Trotta’s movie. The movie is split in two parts. The first part is about Arendt’s experience of the trial and the incidents that activated her critical thinking and led her to write her radical and controversial report including all the key ideas which are contained in her political thought. The second part is about the incidents that followed the publication of her report and the critic she received about it. From my perspective, the second and most important part of the movie is about the thoughts that Arendt’s report generated after its publication.
Another interesting aspect that has to be mentioned is that the script of the movie is based also on the idea of judgement and its fundamental presuppositional factor, that of thinking, and I must say with no hesitation that Von Trotta’s film succeeds to capture this relationship which is amongst the fundamental ideas of Arendt’s political thought. But what is the Arendtian idea of judgement? I think that the answer lies at the courageous speech that Arendt gives in front of her students when she says that is the capacity to distinguish between good and evil, between beautiful and ugly. That is, according to her, the manifestation of the wind of thought. On the contrary the trial of Eichmann, as Arendt believed and reported, didn’t represent its main purpose, that of to distribute justice; instead, this trial for Arendt had an indoctrinating goal. Consequently, Arendt questions and rejects the Israeli government’s decision to bring and try Eichmann in Jerusalem and she also accuses the Israeli position to be both illegal and unthinking. Illegal because Israeli secret service had no right to kidnap him and unthinking because Eichmann wasn’t tried as an individual who has committed crimes against humanity but as a German person who has committed anti-Semitic crimes against the whole Jewish community. That’s why Arendt believed that the only purpose of this trial was the indoctrination of the Israeli youth about the necessity and the importance of Zionism , a movement which the highest authors of the Jewish community used to present as the idea that had enabled the Jewish people to survive the Holocaust. However, we may not think that Arendt’s criticism was against the judicial system of Israel in whole. Rather, Arendt held a great admiration for the three judges who heard the Eichmann case and while she agrees with the final verdict she believes that their verdict didn’t face all of the important and legal issues efficiently.
Arendt’s thought was the same regarding Eichmann’s defence. She represents Eichmann as an unthinking person who he believed that he followed orders that he promised to follow and
he invoked that he was doing his duty. As Arendt emphatically and sarcastically mentions at her report:
“ The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was so close with his inability to think from the standpoint of somebody else” (Arendt 1994, 49)
In the face of Eichmann, Arendt doesn’t see a frightful person or a true representation of evil – in other words a ‘radical’ version of evil as she described in The Human Condition (2) (1958) – but he sees a nobody, a superfluous existence who though he is a biological organism, he, on the other hand, is incapable to think as a human being. Arendt presents Eichmann as a dilemma that needs to be addressed and understood also. A dilemma because as mentioned before Eichmann was so ‘normal’, and he was ‘normal’ by the fact that he invoked his obedience to his duty; his obedience to the law and the commands of a higher authority; he decided to obey the commands of his Fuhrer. That makes him a conscious person who acted on duty, as he invoked, even when it was against his inclinations. But what Arendt remarkably observes in this notion is that though this person may look as ‘normal’ the fact that he was unable to think about his action, the fact that he decided to expel any amount of autonomy from his personal existence, constitutes him also as a subhuman, as a ‘nobody’. And this observation of hers on Eichmann’s personality made her conclude to her notion about the banality of evil. A type of evil which cannot be radical because Eichmann does not embody it. His motives cannot be perceived as evil, though he contributes to evil by the very fact that he is incapable to think. At this point it has to be made very clear that under no circumstances Arendt believed in Eichmann’s innocence as she was widely accused after her report. Arendt believed that this type of evil is something that the humanity never experienced before which constitutes a serious problem that needs to be understood. To that extent, Arendt sees Eichmann as a lesson on the ‘banality of evil’ in which everyone can see clearly what can happen when a person and a culture speak and behave without thinking; they are capable of producing the most horrific actions while at the same time they contribute to the creation of an absolute form of evil.
This thesis of hers raised many controversial objections and gained only few supportive voices. Most of the objections were related to her portrait of Eichmann as ‘banal’. However, the most harsh criticism resulted by her thesis against the Jewish councils and the tactics their leaders conducted in favour of only few and not of the majority Jewish community. But these objections can’t stand for two main reasons. Firstly, when Arendt criticize the tactics of the Jewish council she was criticizing the tactics of the various societies and groups of people who were facing the Nazi occupation. As it is mentioned in the movie, Arendt’s thesis was not in favour of a direct resistance because such thing was impossible. She refuses also utterly the solution of total obedience as she mentions that:
“in politics obedience and support are the same” (Arendt 1994, 279).
What she suggests is that there must be something between resistance and obedience. A solution which can only be created through the capacity to think, in order to proceed to a moral judgement which entails an action of fundamental importance. In other words, Arendt’s critical point was that the Jewish councils did not draw a line of distinction between “helping Jews to emigrate and helping the Nazis to deport them” (Arendt 1994, 284). Some of the Jewish leaders invoked that they remained silent in order to prevent the people from panicking. A notion that raised many crucial questions on her behalf about the humanity of this type of silence. Consistently, what she implies is the notion that insofar we decide to try a person who was incapable to think for himself, we must not refuse to make any criticism or even to attribute responsibilities to those persons whom their silence caused the death of almost six million people. Particularly, Arendt cited that
“if the Jewish people had really been unorganized and leaderless, there would have been chaos and plenty of misery but the total number of victims would hardly have been between four and a half and six million people”(Arendt 1994, 125).
It is because of these theories which mentioned above, that Arendt paradoxically has been given a different role to play; from that of a reporter in an important trial, to this of a prosecuted person at the court of the public opinion. There are several times shown in the movie when Arendt receives threats and curses by people who felt disappointed by her report. He even lost some of her good friends such as Hans Jonas and Kurt Blumenfeld who they decided to cut any relationship with her. But she never took back any of her beliefs. The only thing that she was always trying to do was to arouse the critical thinking of her readers, asking them to engage to a silent conversation with themselves and think politically just like she does. And any time her thoughts led her to a dead end, as we see in the movie, she called “the king of her thoughts”, the great philosopher, Martin Heidegger. A person of great importance to her progress as one of the most prolific philosophers of the 20th Century, who introduced her to the idea of thinking. Unlike Heidegger’s view though as captured in the movie about thinking as a ‘lonesome business’, Arendt’s view is based on the notion that thinking is meaningful only when it is expressed in the public sphere. That’s the main reason she decided to publish her book regardless the controversies it might raise, and to give a public speech about it in front of her students and fellow-professors of the university she was teaching at, some of which they accused her for a crime she didn’t commit. What Arendt gives is not an apology; rather, what she tries to do is nothing more but to explain the importance of thinking to her audience. That is the manifestation of her courage. A presentation of her great strength to speak to an audience in order to express her thoughts publicly and to highlight their importance. Lastly and once again, the other interesting aspect that the movie is based on is the fundamental idea of Arendt’s political universe: that of the relationship between thought and praxis. As Yasemin Sari cites in her review about the movie:
“for Arendt, thought is manifest in conversation. Nevertheless, conversation can best be understood as happening in two levels: one personal, and the other interpersonal. In thinking we are in a dialogue with ourselves. Thoughtlessness, then, for Hanna Arendt, is the absence of inner dialogue. This thoughtlessness, in turn, leads to the absence of judgement, which is a ‘moral collapse’.
And she concludes:
“What Arendt does by way of Eichmann’s trial is to argue that evil lies not in the passions of a monster, but rather, in Eichmann’s inability to think with and for himself’. (Sari 2014, 42-43)
This is a general moral problem which has to do with the idea of judgment specifically. How we, as human beings, can we draw a line of distinction between good and evil, between ugliness and beauty. Thus, after the end of the movie you may think that human instinct is an insufficient factor to be related with the decisions of a moral agent, or even of a human being at all. Again, Arendt’s analysis of the trial of Eichmann clarifies the fragility of what we call mostly human, while at the same time she leaves us with the hope to be capable to draw this line of distinction, to be political beings and critical thinkers, only when we decide to have a silent and inner dialogue with ourselves and after that to express our thoughts in the public sphere.
Now think and ask yourself: Do you still have the same thoughts as before?
(1) The book was originally published as The Burden of Our Time in Britain, 1951.
(2) In The Human Condition, Arendt, gives another interpretation of the Kantian conception about ‘evil’ when she identifies aspects of radicalism on its appliance. For Arendt, evil becomes radical when it is the conclusion of an action so horrific that cannot be forgiven, yet cannot be punished properly.
Arendt, H. 1994. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York, N.Y., U.S.A : Penguin Books.
Arendt, H. 1967. The Origins of Totalitariansim 3d Ed. London : Allen & Unwin.
Arendt, H. 1958. The Human Condition. Chicago ; London : University of Chicago Press.
Arendt, H. 1978. The Life of the Mind. London : Secker & Warburg.
Sari, Yasemin 2014. Hanna Arendt – Courtroom Drama. Philosophy Magazine Issue 100 January/February 2014, pp 42-43.