German Director Takes on Hannah Arendt, Minus the Banality

In a visit to Israel, Margarethe von Trotta discusses her film on the German Jewish thinker and Arendt's landmark coverage of the Eichmann trial.

In 2002, German film director Margarethe von Trotta had just completed "Rosenstrasse," which told the story of the February-March 1943 protest in which several thousand German women took to Berlin's streets to demand the release of their husbands and relatives held by the Gestapo. “Now I want you to make a film about Hannah Arendt,” a friend told her. She found the idea almost frightening. “I thought to myself, ‘Oh no, it’s impossible to make a film about a philosopher, a thinker.'”

Yet last week, von Trotta landed at Ben-Gurion International Airport to attend the Israeli premiere of “Hannah Arendt,” her new film. In an interview with Haaretz, she admitted she was curious to see how Israelis would respond to a film about the German Jewish intellectual who caused an uproar with her reporting on the 1961 Eichmann trial. Arendt coined the phrase “the banality of evil,” depicted Eichmann as mediocre — a cog in the bureaucratic machine, not a monster — and complained that the proceedings had morphed into a show trial. Her statements won her many supporters, and many enemies.

Von Trotta eventually took up the challenge, recruiting American Jewish screenwriter Pamela Katz. They plunged into research and spoke with people who knew Arendt.

Arendt, who as a young woman was the student and lover of philosopher Martin Heidegger, fled Germany to France in 1933. In 1940 she was sent to a detention camp in southern France but managed to escape. A year later she immigrated to the United States, where she built a flourishing academic career.

In 1961 she suggested that the editors of The New Yorker send her to Jerusalem to cover the Eichmann trial. Two years later, her pieces were collected in the book "Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil."

It took eight years to raise funds for the film, a German-Israeli-French coproduction. German actress Barbara Sukowa plays Arendt, making this her fifth von Trotta film. She portrays Arendt as a brilliant, strong and unapologetic woman who can be serious and even stubborn, but also soft, loyal and loving.

The banality of Eichmann

Recently, the Yad Vashem website uploaded footage of the Eichmann trial; Von Trotta spent hours watching it. “For me, as a non-Jewish German, it was strange to see Eichmann at this trial, to see a real human being sitting there — a human being … and realize that he was an average, ordinary human being, nothing more."

Arendt herself wrote that she sometimes burst out laughing when she watched him. "And really, he is so comic sometimes, so narrow-minded, he speaks in such cliches, and in terms of grammar, he almost never ends a sentence correctly," von Trotta says. "When you hear him speak, you see that he really isn’t capable of forming an original sentence."

Von Trotta was happy when she received permission from Yad Vashem to use footage from the trial; she didn't want an actor playing Eichmann. “I wanted people to see the real Eichmann, the person who was so frightening and dreadful simply because he was so normal, so ordinary.”

Von Trotta says she identified completely with Arendt's opinions on Eichmann, but she also wanted to include the severe criticism of Arendt. She does this mainly via two characters, close friends of Arendt who were Jewish. One was Kurt Blumenfeld, her Zionist friend who lived in Israel.

Blumenfeld chastised her in a letter for not feeling any love or compassion for her people or Israel, von Trotta notes. Arendt wrote back that she couldn't love a  country, just her friends. Also, toward the end of the film, Arendt mentions how evil is never radical, only extreme. Only good has depth and can be radical.

In one aspect of the trial von Trotta differs with Arendt; von Trotta chooses to show the testimony of survivors; one fainted and another hid his face in his hands and had trouble testifying.

"It was important to show them in the film because many people said of Arendt that she was cold, unfeeling and haughty, but that isn't accurate,” von Trotta says. “She felt the pain of those people who had to relive, in the courtroom, the terrible trauma they had suffered. Actually, that was what made her so angry with the court. She said that those testimonies had nothing to do with Eichmann himself; their purpose was to create a portrait of the Holocaust in its entirety. Therefore she felt it was a show trial."

Von Trotta says she understands Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion for wanting to show Israelis and the world what happened during the Holocaust. "In that sense, he used Eichmann as a kind of pretext for showing these things to a new generation of Israelis.”

Schlondorff and Fassbinder

Von Trotta is one of Germany's most prominent directors and was a leader of the New German Cinema movement in the 1970s and '80s. She has directed about 20 works for film and television and has won a raft of awards. She directed "The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum" (1975), "Two German Sisters"(1981), "Rosa Luxemburg" (1986) and "Rosenstrasse" (2003).

A feminist filmmaker, she frequently places a strong, independent woman at the center of her films. But before she fulfilled her dream of becoming a director, she was an actress. In 1969, she met director Volker Schlondorff, who offered her a role in his film "Baal." On the set, she met Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who played the main role. Afterward, she appeared in several films by Fassbinder and Schlondorff; she was married to Schlondorff for 20 years.

Von Trotta began by writing screenplays with Schlondorff; in 1975, when she felt ready, she directed her first film, "The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum." She co-wrote the screenplay with Schlondorff. In those days, the life of a woman director was much more difficult than that of a male director, she says.

“For example, it was very hard for me to convince the producers that I could make a film,” she recalls. “Today it’s much easier. In film schools there are many women students, but still, when you look at the top of the pyramid, you mainly see men.”

David Bachar