By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 20, 2013)
A comic I worked with a few times during my stand-up days (whose name escapes me) used to do a parody song (to the tune of Dion’s “The Wanderer”) that was not only funny, but a clever bit of meta regarding the very process of coming up with “funny”. It began with “Ohh…I’m the type of guy, who likes to sit around,” (that’s all I remember of the verse) and the chorus went: “Cuz I’m the ponderer, yeeah…I’m the ponderer, I sit around around around around…” Still makes me chuckle thinking about it. And it’s so true. Writers do spend an inordinate amount of time sitting around and thinking about writing. To the casual observer it may appear he or she is just sitting there staring into space, but at any given moment (and you’ll have to trust me on this one) their senses are working overtime.
There’s lots of staring into space in Hannah Arendt, a new biopic from Margarethe von Trotta. The film focuses on a specific period in the life of the eponymous character (played by Barbara Sukowa, in her third collaboration with the prolific German director), when the political theorist/philosopher wrote a series of articles for the New Yorker magazine (eventually spawning a book) covering the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. If that doesn’t sound to you like the impetus for a slam-bang action thriller, you would be correct; even if the film does in fact open with a bit of (murky) action. A man has his leisurely nighttime stroll rudely interrupted by a team of abductors, who unceremoniously toss him into the back of a truck and spirit him away (in 1960, Eichmann was nabbed in Argentina and smuggled to Israel by the Mossad to stand trial).
The remainder of the film more or less concerns itself with the personal and professional fallout suffered by Arendt (a German Jew who fled from France to New York in 1941 with her husband and mother) after she eschews the expected boilerplate courtroom reportage for an incendiary treatise redefining the nature of evil in a post-Nazi world. It was in this magazine piece that Arendt coined the phrase “banality of evil”, which has become part of the lexicon (god knows I’ve co-opted it once or twice in my own writing). While it doesn’t seem like such a big deal now, this was a provocative (and subsequently controversial) concept for its time.
Most fascinating to Hannah (and us, as we watch interpolated archival footage from the trial) was Eichmann’s ho-hum businesslike demeanor as he recounted sending thousands to the gas chambers; just another bureaucrat punching a clock and filing in triplicate (remember Michael Palin as the torturer in Brazil, casually removing a blood-spattered smock to affably play with his little girl, who has been patiently waiting in Daddy’s office while he’s “working”?).
Sukowa gives a compelling performance as Hannah; particularly impressive considering how much of it is internalized (she’s so good that you can almost tell what she’s thinking). While a film largely comprised of intellectuals smoking like chimneys while engaging in heated debates over ethical and political questions is obviously doomed to a niche audience, its release turns out to be quite timely. A day or two after I saw the film, the “controversy” over the Rolling Stone Boston bomber cover was all over the media. I couldn’t help but immediately draw a parallel with the flak that Arendt received in 1960 because she dared suggest that Evil doesn’t necessarily wear horns and carry a pitchfork. There’s something about that simple fact what really pisses some people off. Go figure.