This is an interesting film because it has aspects that fall within all four of the categories set out by Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino in their manifesto Towards a Third Cinema. The film was directed by Magarethe von Trotta and co-scripted by her with Pam Katz. Thus it can be placed in the first cinema or ‘authors cinema’. It is as a work by a noted European filmmaker that the film is marketed and distributed. And it bears the marks identified by Cahiers du Cinéma as a work by an established auteur. It is also an example of the second cinema filmmaker, i.e. ‘trapped within the fortress’. It focuses on Arendt’s coverage of the trial of Adolf Eichmann by the Israeli State in 1961. It is also part funded by Israeli institutions. So it relates to attempts by the Zionist State to develop a ‘national cinema’: despite actually comprising a settlement on the land of an oppressed nation. And, finally, because much of the film is set in Palestine, it also relates [negatively] to the developing Palestinian cinema. This setting of the film, in the occupied territory of the Palestine, would be properly addressed by a Third cinema approach, i.e. a film ‘that directly and explicitly sets] out to fight the System’. The system is, of course, neo-colonialism.
The film has been produced in an English language edition with some non-English dialogue and sub-titles. Its style bears the hallmark of mainstream commercial cinema [i.e. the dominant mode in the industry], notably in the treatment of archive footage: much of the archive material from the 1960s period [including televised material] has been cropped and possibly occasionally stretched to fit the modern ratio of 1.85:1. This particular technique is presumably used for another exhibition life on video and television.
In one sense the film is a biopic, of the famous German and Jewish intellectual Hannah Arendt. But the plot focuses on a short period in 1961 when Arendt was commissioned by ‘The New Yorker’ magazine to cover and write a series of articles on the trial in Israel of Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann was part of the Nazi administration responsible for organising the mass murder of millions of Jews, both from Germany and other European countries occupied during the war. Her articles were later published as a book, Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963).
Hannah Arendt was born in Hanover in 1906. She studied philosophy at University. In 1933 she had to flee Germany and later settled in the USA where she became a citizen in 1950. She was married to fellow philosopher and German refugee Heinrich Blücher. At the time of her ‘New Yorker’ commission she was a visiting fellow at Columbia University. She was also extensively involved in Jewish organisations, including those assisting immigration to Israel. She had already written on the Nuremberg War Crime Trials. Her most famous work popularised the notion of ‘totalitarianism’.
The film follows events round the commission and trial and subsequent controversy when the articles appeared. It also details her relationships with her partner and with Jewish friends in the USA and in Israel. The majority of the latter take exception to the stance in her articles, in particular to her open criticism of the collaboration of Jewish organisations with the Nazi regime. In the 1960s this was a fairly courageous stance to take: whilst she was factually correct this was something that was extremely difficult for Jews as well as Zionists to admit. Less clearly expressed in the film were her questions about the legitimacy of the trial: Israeli agents secretly kidnapped Eichmann who was taken to Jerusalem and tried by the Israeli State, a state that did not exist when the crimes were committed and which were committed in Europe.
The film also includes flashbacks, in particular to her relationship with her philosophical mentor, Martin Heidegger. Heidegger later acted as an intellectual front for the Nazis. This aspect of the film fills out the psychological and intellectual portrait of Arendt. It suggests both a sense of guilt felt by many Jewish survivors over the millions who died. But it also sets out intellectual principles that motivated Arendt, including her writings on the Eichmann trial.
Arendt is played by Barbara Sukowa, a regular collaborator with von Trotta. And the film is recognisable in the style of that director’s work. It has a fine mise en scéne, which adds to the sense of the characters: Arendt and her partner clearly have a comfortable life style in the USA. And the placing and filming of characters is carefully judged to develop their emotional stances. Thus Arendt’s partner [Blücher – Axel Milburg) seems to have a more openly critical stance on the Israeli trial than Arendt and in several shots she is positioned midway between him or her more pro-Zionist friends. The conflicts are even more noticeable when she visits Israel: a scene of welcome in a comfortable Israeli home of Kurt Blumenfeld (Michael Degen) is different from a post-article visit where her dying friend lies in a sterilised hospital environment.
The major style problem with the film seems to be the abuse of archive footage. Cropping the 1960s material to 1.85:1 is very noticeable. Much of it is taken from the television coverage of the actual trial: in the 1960s this was still very similar to the Academy ratio, 1.37:1. And one particular shot emphases this. As an accredited journalist Arendt is able to watch the TV footage from a pressroom. At one point we have a close-up of Arendt followed by a point-of-view shot of the television footage, in 1.85:1. The technique is partly occasioned by there being one scene reconstructing the trail in colour and widescreen: but the majority of the coverage is in the black and white ‘4 x 3’. This seems to me to be a political as well as an aesthetic problem. How you treat not just the past but the artefacts of the past speak volumes about the historical stance taken.
But my major problems with the film are political. I should first allow the point that as a Marxist I do not agree with much of Arendt’s writings. Her famous concept of totalitarianism does not take account of political economy. Her conflation of the Soviet Union with the Third Reich does not address the different economic structures of the two societies. In fact, Arendt writes philosophically and historically, but she does not discuss in any detail the economic base. Moreover one of her main points regarding a totalitarian society is the claim that there was or is, ‘An Alliance Between Mob and Capital’. This begs the question of ‘class’. A historical account of the Third Reich shows that class was central to its mode of operation: indeed one of the points that Arendt makes in Eichmann in Jerusalem is the difference in treatment by the Nazi of ordinary Jewish people and ‘prominent Jews’. However, Arendt’s style tends to the discursive so it is tricky to pin down her thought and argument in pithy quotes: and her writing tends to lack, simple definitions.
Richard J. Evans provides a summary of her critical position in the Eichmann articles in a Guardian book review:
“Time and again she raises questions that provoke and disturb. The abduction of Eichmann from Argentina was illegal; the trail was a show-trial; Israel’s marriage laws were similar to the racist Nuremberg laws of the Nazis; Eichmann’s crimes were crimes against humanity, so international law should have dealt with this case.” (Reviewing Eichmann Before Jerusalem by Betina Stangneth, October 18th 2014).
So in Eichmann in Jerusalem early on we read a paragraph that follows caustic comments on Ben Gurion’s ‘show trial’.
“Hence the almost universal hostility in Israel to the mere mention of an international court which would have indicted Eichmann, not for crimes “against the Jewish people,” but for crimes against mankind committed on the body of the Jewish people. Hence the strange boast: “We make no ethnic distinctions,” which sounded less strange in Israel, where rabbinical law rulers the personal status of Jewish citizens, with the result that no Jew can marry a non-Jew: …there certainly was something breathtaking in the naivete with which the prosecution denounced the infamous Nuremberg Laws of 1935, which prohibited intermarriage and sexual intercourse between Jews and Germans.” [Arendt, 1963: actually she presumably means between ‘German Jews and Non-Jewish Germans’].
I do not think that the film gives a proper account of Arendt’s analysis and arguments in the articles. One point is the question of the legitimacy of the Israeli trial. In the film the points on this are made by the partner. Arendt seems to be sympathetic but does not voice agreement. One example is the scene that has her sited midway between Blücher and Jewish and pro-Zionist friends Hans Jonas (Ulrich Noethen) and Lore Jonas (Sascha Ley).
Of even more concern is the almost total absence in the film of Palestinians. There is one shot outside the courtroom of an elderly man [likely a Palestinian] with two youngsters listening to a radio, apparently providing coverage of the trial. That is it. Yet the film does include comments on the racism of early 1960s USA. The house servant in the apartment block where the couple lives is an Afro-American, . We see him on three occasions and his repeated appearances seem a subtle comment on the way that the contemporary USA treated its black citizens; Arendt and Blücher always treat him courteously. Palestinians receive no equivalence.
But Arendt must have been aware of the Palestinian refugees and the requirements on Israel by the United Nations to permit the return of the refugees driven from their homes. This is an issue she does not discuss or possibly deliberately avoids in the book. But her references to the ‘marriage laws’ clearly relate to the ‘apartheid’ style discrimination of Palestinians.
As the credits note the film is jointly funded and produced from Germany, Luxembourg, France and Israel. Germany is, of course, von Trotta’s home state: and European co-productions are common. Among the ten production companies given in the credits we find the Israel Film Fund and the Jerusalem Film & Television Fund. One can understand the interest and financing from these two agencies: and the film uses Jerusalem as a major location. But as agencies of the Israeli state they would seem to be tied to the particularly interpretation which is essentially Zionist. And it is difficult not to deduce that this had a major impact on the stance taken in the film.
But the film also suffers from mainstream conventions. Von Trotta has addressed the European Holocaust in an earlier film, Rosenstraße (2003). This also dealt with the marriage laws of the Third Reich and involved an investigation into the situation of non-Jewish women married to German Jewish men. The film is structured around flashbacks to the protest in 1943 by the women when their husbands are arrested and taken away to the extermination camps. The flashbacks are from the point of view of survivors now living in New York. And one of her other major films dealt with Rosa Luxemberg (1986), a major communist intellectual and activist in Germany in the first part of the C20th. Both the earlier films seem to have a different agenda from Hannah Arendt. Moreover both the earlier films follow the conventions of European art cinema: Rosenstraße uses a quite complex flashback structure to present the story: and Rosa Luxemberg relies on montage in the Soviet sense. But the three flashbacks in Hannah Arendt are far more conventional, detailing the ‘patriarchal’ influence of and sexual adventure with Heiddeger. Moreover the film opens with a dramatic version of the kidnapping of Eichmann in Argentina by Israeli agents: drama to open the film. This is the sort of ‘art’ cinema produced by the Weinsteins.
At the climax of the film Arendt (Sukowa) makes an impassioned defence of her articles and her arguments in the articles. Several Jewish characters walk out. However, we also get close-ups of a young woman student following the lecture. The camera returns to her several times. A ploy that proposes a relationship of mind and values that supports Arendt: a common trope in certain mainstream films.
Hannah Arendt is a fascinating portrait, which brings out the intellectual character of its protagonist. But politically it remains within the dominant cinema: and it has to remembered that this cinema, especially Hollywood, has fairly uncritically presented the Zionist representation of the Palestinian occupation.