‘The Banality of Evil’ before its time

Barbara Sukowa as Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt
Review by Megan Graham

The year is 1961. Successful philosopher and lecturer Hannah Arendt (Barbara Sukowa) lives a life of writing in between soaking up attention from her husband, being adored by friends, hosting lively dinner parties and teaching devoted students. Capable and likeable, she seems destined for enviable professional and personal success.

Our introduction to the subject of this biopic (of the same name) gives little clue to the trauma of Arendt’s past as a German Jewish survivor of WWII. But then she is called on by the New York Times to go to Israel to write about the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a member of the Nazi Secret Service and major  organiser of the Holocaust. Reporting on the infamous war crimes, Arendt develops a philosophy about the darkest sides of human nature that leads her into dangerous moral territory.

With incredible courage and a force that makes her colleagues uncomfortable, Arendt shines a pragmatic light on the hollow, insidious workings of evil that allowed the Holocaust to occur.

Arendt develops the controversial concept of ‘The banality of evil’.

Her theory suggests that evil need not be committed exclusively by a particular type of fanatical or sociopathic ‘monster’. Rather, she suggests the great evils of history, including the Holocaust, were perpetrated by ordinary people obeying their state and acting in accordance with their context’s norms and laws.

For her offering of philosophical labour, Arendt pays a hefty price – not only damage to her career but the loss of support from close friends and admirers. She is inundated with hate mail, some of which is breath-takingly vicious. Her views are interpreted as sympathising with Nazism or victim-blaming.

Having experienced the horrors of a detention camp in Gurs (France) under the Vichy regime, Arendt is within her rights to speak from the point of view of a Holocaust victim.  As a philosopher, to wonder how it occurred – and how Eichmann could seem so ordinary yet participate in such evil – is her way of dealing with the experience.

But in the process of remaining faithful to her beliefs she burns the bridges linking her to her people’s collective suffering.
While she is told she should die, that she is heartless and a ‘self-hating Jew’, she claims it is the desire to prevent disastrous history repeating that fuels her determination.

Her nuanced language and the sophistication of her argument are experienced as an attack by those who have been so horribly wronged. It is too soon in the aftermath of the biggest human atrocity the world has ever seen. Arendt’s critics argue her views align her with evil even though, as she claims during a culminating address at her university, wanting to understand is in no way the same as justifying.

This is true. But the wounds of millions are too easily inflamed by such a line of thinking. Arendt is accused of having no feelings, of being arrogant for standing by her views.

The audience is left to ponder whether, at times like this, wisdom should wait.

Perhaps Arendt failed to recognise that the general populace might need time, a lot of time, to reach a similar conclusion, if they could ever embrace even the most preliminary of her ideas on the topic. The inclusion of a psychotherapist friend in the film allows for a few lines defending the right to just feel pain rather than process trauma from an intellectual distance.

To act as compassionately as possible, Arendt could have considered the public’s receptivity, and the potential for her views to cause great distress. In the end, the strength of her argument was lost in the fact that the average person did not have the same philosophical groundwork through which to arrive at them. And, not understanding, misunderstood her motivations and the implications.

While they reacted emotionally, she defended intellectually.

Was there necessarily right and wrong in this story? Or was there the simple reality that two sides of ‘right’ were not ready to see eye-to-eye?

Barbara Sukowa is believable and compelling in the role of Arendt, inspiring awe and simultaneously instilling a quiet desire to distance oneself. As her motivations become clear the audience can see that she is far from heartless; by the same token, the viewer can sympathise with her post-WWII audience.

On a topic so sensitive and fraught with emotion, I think striking this balance is about as much as you could ask for.

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