Thinking with Kisses: Hannah Arendt

◆ by Thomas Prasch

In Hannah Arendt, Margarethe von Trotta’s film about the crisis and controversy provoked by Hannah Arendt’s New Yorker articles in 1961 on the Adolph Eichmann trial, in which Arendt notoriously framed her argument about the “banality of evil,” two framed photographs stand on her desk: one of Martin Heidegger, the existentialist philosopher who mentored her in Germany, and one of Heinrich Blücher, her husband. They stand as the two poles in her engaged involvement with the world, of mind and heart, of Arendt’s passionate commitment to the realm of thought, which Arendt fashions as the central bulwark by which mankind can avoid the grip of totalitarian conditions, and of equally passionate (with lots of hugs and kisses) commitment to social engagement, lovers and friends, on whom Arendt depends to maintain her philosophical work (as when, later in the film, Heinrich tries to leave the house without kissing her goodbye and excuses the action by saying “Never disturb a great philosopher when they’re thinking,” Arendt insists: “But they can’t think without kisses”). Both traits define our humanity, and it is above all else the abandonment of that humanity, Arendt argues in her analysis of Eichmann, that totalitarianism triumphs.

[Image at the top of this post: Hannah Arendt.]

The film’s nearly-opening two scenes (after the brief initial scene in which Eichmann is seized by Israeli forces) reinforce the message of the two framed portraits. In the first, we see Hannah Arendt thinking. It is a striking start to a film above all else for its sheer duration: she paces, smokes a cigarette, lies down on a couch, but above all thinks, silently, no speaking, no voiceover, for a long time, over a minute and a half of screen time, something unimaginable in, say, Hollywood cinema. Immediately following, von Trotta catches a discussion between Arendt and her close friend, novelist Mary McCarthy. The conversation, picked up in medes res, opens with an interesting bit of misdirection: “But Hannah, how can you defend him?” McCarthy is asking, however, not about Eichmann, but about McCarthy’s straying husband, and in the course of a discussion about whether you can trust men, Arendt draws two key conclusions: first, that “I do not throw my friends away so easily” (so the husband’s affair will not lead to a shunning), and second: “Either you are willing to take men as they are or you must live alone.” That lonely alternative to human engagement will become a leitmotif in the film.

The dichotomy is, of course, imperfect; as Arendt’s response to Heinrich suggests, no person can be all thought, or presumably all kisses. In Germany, Heidegger had been Arendt’s lover as well as teacher: the movie, in one of several flashbacks to her student years, imagines the beginning of the affair precisely in the breakdown of the dichotomy, when Hannah, in Heidegger’s office, tells him: “We are so used to thinking of reason and passion as opposites that the idea of passionate thinking, where thinking and being alive are one and the same, is terrifying to me.” And, on the other side, Heinrich is not just a kisser (although an aside by McCarthy during that party scene notes: “They are the happiest married couple in the world”); he is also a passionate participant in the debates among the German expatriate community in New York that explode in Hannah and Heinrich’s living room (and tend, especially for the stray English speakers in the crowd, rather to ruin her parties) immediately after Eichmann’s arrest and removal to Jerusalem. Heinrich ferociously contends, for example, that the arrest and trial have no basis in international law, against those who equally angrily contend that any court would do for such a man. And, of course, the dichotomy is muddled somewhat by Heidegger’s own trajectory: his embrace of the Nazi party as rector of the university in Freiburg. Indeed, Hans Jonas, identified in that early party scene as Arendt’s “oldest friend,” going back to when they were both (Jewish) students of Heidegger, cannot bear to hear the philosopher’s name mentioned (although here, too, the dichotomy also tends to collapse: Heinrich late in the film suggests to Hannah that Hans “hates Heidegger more for stealing your heart than for joining the [Nazi] Party”). In another flashback, the only postwar one, Arendt confronts her old tutor on his abandonment of the principles of independent thought in his adherence to Nazism, to which charge he has in the film, as he had in life, no answer but awkward, evasive silence.

Still, the dichotomy — of hand and heart — is a useful frame for understanding the ways in which von Trotta constructs Arendt’s course through the controversy (a constant alternation, echoing those first scenes, between life of mind and social life). The film’s insistence on Hannah’s need for others as much as her need for thought provides a defense against some of Arendt’s most aggressive contemporary critics (like the New School foe who, in the midst of trying to remove her from the school’s classrooms, harumphs: “That’s Hannah Arendt, all arrogance and no feeling”). The dichotomy will simultaneously provide Arendt herself with an understanding of the operation of totalitarian systems, which begins with the abandonment of thought, which, Arendt asserts, undermines the very humanity of the Nazi—“In refusing to be a person,” by not thinking of his actions, by making himself nothing but a bureaucratic cog, “Eichmann surrendered that single most defining human quality, that of being able to think,” which produces the bureaucratic process made manifest in the operation of the Final Solution, which in turn dehumanizes the victims. As she explains to her students, “the camp is a place where every activity and human impulse is senseless,” and where, it follows, there is no humanity, which makes it that much easier to kill). And, finally, the dichotomy will provide the complex dialectic of triumphant and tragic outcomes that define the film’s conclusion. Thus, on the one hand, at the level of thought, the film gives Arendt her intellectual triumph: she gets the last word, in the extended lecture she presents at the New School at the height of the controversy, in which she will take on and effectively demolish the attacks of her fiercest critics. At the same time, the tragic dimension is that her intellectual triumph coincides with her increasing social isolation: Heinrich dies (no cause-effect here, just coincident timing); Hans, that “oldest friend,” abandons her; so does Kurt Blumenfeld, her old Zionist friend in Jerusalem. When they had argued during the Eichmann trial — as, indeed, Arendt used their arguments to begin to flesh out her ideas about the “banality of evil” — Hannah and Kurt reassured his listening daughter: Hannah telling her “But after finishing our bloody duels,” and Kurt finishing her sentence: “We always find a way to make up.” But, on his deathbed, he turns his back on her. Earlier in the film, in one of the flashbacks, a line of Heidegger’s anticipates this tragic dimension: “Thinking is a lonely business.” Arendt’s thinking will make her lonelier.
Arendt’s book unleashed a firestorm of criticism. The movie about that firestorm has, in striking ways, reignited it. The new attacks have been remarkable perhaps most of all in the level to which they have misrepresented both Arendt and von Trotta’s film. In The New Republic, Saul Austerlitz denounced the film because it “perpetuates the pernicious myth” of “Arendt as fearless truth-teller” by dismissing her critics as “bullies, shrill ideologues” and ignoring their “valid criticisms” of her “shoddy history,” while proffering much shoddy history himself (that Arendt thought Eichmann was “unaware” of the atrocities, for instance, a claim Arendt never made). Similarly, in the New York Times, Fred Kaplan insisted that newer evidence undermines Arendt’s : “Her ‘banality of evil’ thesis rests on the premise that Eichmann committed his deeds with no awareness of their evil, not even with virulent anti-Semitism,” but this misunderstands Arendt’s premise and misstates the evidence she had at hand. Stanley Kauffman in The New Republic insists: “Today at least we can see that there is small point in separating emotions from facts, as Arendt did,” when in fact she did not such thing.

At this level, the new attacks largely reprise the debates Arendt’s original publication provoked. They have also gone significantly further, however, in terms of mischaracterizations of Arendt, personalized attacks on von Trotta, and false claims about the film. Kauffman, for example, falsely claims that Arendt’s love affair with Heidegger was renewed after the war, “presumably more a matter of Venus than politics,” and that the controversy over her book led to her “discharge from her teaching position.” Wrong on both counts. David Rieff, writing in The Nation, says of the Americans in the film: “those roles as written are a little too close for comfort to seeming like a road show for The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” the classic anti-Semitic screed, a charge that is both hyperbolically overloaded and absurdly unfitted to the film. Mark Lilla, in the New York Review of Books, both dismissively derides von Trotta, as someone whose “specialty is didactic feminist buddy movies,” and misrepresents the film. He writes, for example: “In one shot we are watching Eichmannn testify … in the next her husband is patting her behind as they cook dinner.” Although both moments occur in Hannah Arendt, they are separated by over half an hour of screen time. Lilla also insists, of Arendt’s arrival at her conclusions, that “we are left with the impression that she … had a vision,” ignoring the role of thinking, of discussing and debating and writing and revising, that are central to the movie. Lilla needs the visionary angle, however, to stake his own conclusion, that this is “a stilted, and very German, morality play about conformism and independence” which exposes Germans’ “unwillingness … to think for themselves,” a bizarre claim to make about a philosopher committed to the priority of thought and a film that makes thinking so central.

Critics of Arendt’s position, then and now, have focused above all on two points, and have misunderstood Arendt’s position on both. First, they have argued that her case for the “banality of evil” amounts to an excusing of Eichmann for his crimes, as if Arendt was asserting his functional innocence. But Arendt did no such thing. He had no “motive,” his crimes were “without intention,” he “only obeyed orders.” But that does not excuse his actions (it does not even make them less evil, in fact; “banal,” note, but still “evil”); indeed, it makes them worse. By abandoning thought, Eichmann and Nazis like him abandoned their very humanity, and this made them capable of crimes which, Arendt repeatedly insists, could not be imagined in earlier history.

Second, and most controversially, Arendt focused for a dozen pages of her account on the complicity of Jewish leaders in the mechanics of the Holocaust. As she wrote in Eichmann in Jerusalem, “To a Jew this role of the Jewish leaders in the destruction of their own people is undoubtedly the darkest chapter of the whole dark story.” For her critics this was utter heresy; as one of them puts it here, “You blame the Jewish people for their own destruction.” But this was not Arendt’s point. As she responds to that critic: “I never blamed the Jewish people. Resistance was impossible. But perhaps there is something between resistance and cooperation, and only in that sense do I say that maybe some of the Jewish leaders might have behaved differently.” In this, Arendt drew heavily on the work of Raul Hilfberg, whose then-recent Destruction of the European Jews (1961) fully documented the involvement of Judenrat in the mechanics of the extermination process: in the selection of victims, in the control of information, in the mechanics of ghettoization (bottom line here: Hilfberg’s ample documentation demonstrates that Arendt was right). But beyond that, accusing her of blaming the Jews, as Arendt notes, misses the point. Jewish complicity is for her part of the bigger picture of Nazi totalitarianism’s dehumanization, part of what she calls in the film “the totality of the moral collapse that the Nazis caused.” In no way does she ever suggest, as her critics claimed and claim, that Eichmann could be exonerated and the Jewish leadership held guilty in the process.

In the course of the film, the priority of thought (or its reverse, the abandonment of thought) is a recurrent trope. The thought scene at the outset gets reinforced by a lecture by Heidegger in one of the early flashbacks: “Thinking does not bring knowledge, as do the sciences. Thinking does not produce usable, practical wisdom. Thinking does not solve the riddles of the universe. Thinking does not endow us with the power to act. We live because we are alive. And we think because we are thinking beings.”  And Arendt at work — in discussion, while lecturing, while writing—is always Arendt in thought.

And then, her thought focuses on the inverse, the unthinking totalitarian mind. This figures first of all in Eichmann’s own testimony, provided in the film by archival clips of his actual court testimony, where he speaks the bureaucratese that is the enemy of thought: “I received the matter for its continued processing and dealt with it in an intermediate capacity. As I was ordered to do, I had to follow orders…. Whether people were killed or not, orders had to be executed. In line with administrative procedures.” From that unthinking leadership follows the enforcement of unthought throughout the system, as at the camps (as she explains to her students, recalling her own camp experience in Gurs, where the logic of the system had “nothing to do with selfishness or any such understandable … motives. Instead it is based on the following phenomenon: making human beings superfluous as human beings,” who are, recall from Heidegger, thinking beings), or with the Jewish councils, or anywhere else within the system. As she articulates it in her final lecture: “The trouble with a Nazi criminal like Eichmann was that he insisted on renouncing all personal qualities, as if there was nobody left to be punished or forgiven. He protested time and again … that he had done nothing out of his own initiative. That he had no intentions, good or bad. That he had only obeyed orders. This typical Nazi claim makes it clear that the greatest evil in the world is the evil committed by nobodies, evil committed by men without motive, without convictions… by human beings who refuse to be persons. And it is this phenomenon that I have called the banality of evil.” Depersonalization here coincides with thoughtlessness (although, of course, heartlessness accompanies it as well).

Arendt concludes her final lecture with a reaffirmation of the role of thought as a counterforce to the darkness, in terms that interestingly (and ironically, given his trajectory) echo Heidegger’s: “Since Socrates and Plato, we usually call thinking being engaged in that intent dialogue between me and myself. In refusing to be a person, Eichmann utterly surrendered that single most defining human quality, that of being able to think. And consequently he was no longer capable of making moral judgments. This inability to think created the possibility for many ordinary men to commit evil deeds on a gigantic scale the likes of which one had never seen before. It is true I have considered these questions in a philosophical way. The manifestation of … thought is not knowledge, but the ability to tell right from wrong, beautiful from ugly. And I hope that thinking gives people the strength to prevent catastrophes in those moments when the chips are down.” Her project — and von Trotta’s affirmation of that project — is less about eliminating the category of evil or exonerating its practitioners, but in demystifying it (“He is not Mephistopheles,” Arendt insists to Kurt), and to accomplish this by subjecting totalitarianism, as the enemy of thought, to the process of thinking.

But that process of thought must be balanced for Arendt in the other passion, the social connection. This is made clear early in the film, when she recalls for Heinrich her experience of and escape from the camp. As camp life continued, as the women in the camp were dragged down by “the waiting,” Arendt recalls, “More and more women let themselves go, stopped combing their hair, stopped washing themselves. Just lay on straw mats.” Arendt herself reached a point where “I suddenly lost my courage. I was so tired, so tired, that I wanted to leave this world that I so loved. And in that instant I saw you in front of me. [I thought about] how you’d look for me and not find me.” And so she persevered. But note: it is love that saves her, not thought. It is in the balance between the two that Arendt, and von Trotta, rest our hopes.

The Ryder ◆ June 2014