Fifty Years After the Eichmann Trial, Hannah Arendt Returns to Israel

German filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta speaks to Haaretz on the set of a new film about the controversial Jewish philosopher.

Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman

Upon entering the film studio in Petah Tikva, one is hit with the sensation of time travel.

Dozens of people, most of them men, sit at a long table, dressed in suits and sporting hairstyles particularly fashioned to the 1960s, clacking away at their ancient typewriters, rummaging through the piles of documents surrounding them, or chatting softly with their wives.

The cigarette smoke rising from a plethora of ashtrays clashes with the beams of light washing over the room, accompanying the sporadic glances shot over at the television screens set up in various corners of the room.

This is the press room at Jerusalem's Beit Ha'am, 1961. Dozens of reporters from countries all over the world are here to the cover the trial of the Nazi war criminal, Adolf Eichmann. True, this is just a movie set, but the tension in the room succeeds in pervading even those standing around, observing the goings on.

A peek at the screenplay explains what the reporters are supposedly viewing. The audience that will in due time see the feature film Hannah Arendt now gets a glimpse of an archived moment from the Eichmann trial: A survivor delivers his testimony while the Nazi criminal sits, frozen in his place, inside a glass cell. The survivor describes how during the Second World War, he was one of a group of Jews sent to dig large holes, deep enough to bury thousands of bodies.

The survivor describes how he watched as the Germans brought hundreds of Jews over to these holes, ordered them to strip and enter the holes, and then shot them. Some of them were killed instantly, others were merely wounded. The survivor testifies how after the shooting, the Nazis ordered his group to cover the holes, and how, as they did that, they could hear the screams of those that were still alive. They understand that they were fated to be buried alive.

The reporters in the room look shocked. Tears gather in some of their eyes. A woman reporter sitting in the center of the room rises suddenly from her seat and bumps into one of her colleagues, whose eyes are filled with tears.

"It's we who did these things," her colleague says in German, before hugging her and burying his face in her shoulder.

But she seems to harden, to want to escape from his embrace. "And you just figured that out today?" she responds sarcastically. She wriggles out of his arms and rushes from the room.

The star of the scene, of the entire film, is Hannah Arendt, the German-Jewish philosopher and theorist, who died 36 years ago next month.

In her youth, Arendt was the student and lover of philosopher Martin Heidegger. She fled Germany for France in 1933 and few years later was stripped of her German citizenship. She was sent in 1940 to a detention camp in the south of France, which she managed to escape, and a year later immigrated to the United States, where she immersed herself in a rich academic career.

In 1961, Arendt asked the editors of The New Yorker magazine to send her to Jerusalem to cover the Eichmann trial. The editors were pleased with the pitch, and so she flew to Jerusalem. She stayed there from April to June 1961, and published her impressions of the trial in a series of controversial articles for the New York magazine.

Hannah ArendtCredit: AP

She eventually consolidated the articles into a book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, in which she posits that anti-Semitism alone could not explain the Holocaust. Another factor behind its occurrence, she argues, is a society in which people act banally and simply allow themselves to be dragged into the ways of the masses.

Arendt also suggests that a guiding hand was present during the Eichmann trial, to push forth the Zionist idea and empower Israeli militarism at the expense of a just trial.

The book was the most well-known of her writings, and bore her a number of enemies and opponents both in Israel and around the world. The Hebrew translation of the book was released only in 2000, 40 years after it was originally published.

Man or monster?

"I think Arendt is one of the most important thinkers of the last century," says Margarethe von Trotta, the German director who recently came to Israel to film the movie.

Von Trotta was born in 1942, at exactly the "moment in history"when the National Socialist Party took control of the German government, war broke out, and the "hope" that had touched down on the country "completely dissipated".

German filmmaker Margarethe von TrottaCredit: Daniel Tchetchik

Von Trotta says that having been born at that moment led her to a lifetime of interest in how Germany could have found itself in such a situation and how it could extract itself: How should Germans now think, what should they do, what should be their approach?

Von Trotta, one of the most prominent directors of the New German Cinema movement, began her career as an actress, appearing in the films of Rainer Werner Maria Fassbinder and Volker Schlondorff (who she later married and divorced).

She directed her first feature film, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, in 1975, and went on to direct a long list of pictures presented at international festivals, including Marianne and Juliane (1981, titled in English Two German Sisters), Rosa Luxembourg (1986), and the television movie Die Andere Frau (2004, The Other Woman).

Hannah Arendt, which von Trotta co-wrote with American filmmaker Pam Katz, follows the German theorist over the course of four years, 1960-1964, during the period in which she covered the Eichmann trial, wrote about him, and dealt with the harsh international criticism she garnered.

The two writers initially considered a story spanning Arendt's entire life, says von Trotta during a break from filming, but quickly realized that it would detract from the depth of the subject.

The film instead focuses on when Arendt arrives in Israel, sees Eichmann at the courthouse, and struggles to understand what she sees before her. Because at first Arendt sees a monster, says von Trotta, and then she sees a pathetic man, humble and miserable. "In the end she decides that Eichmann did monstrous things, but he wasn't a monster himself," says von Trotta. "She begins to think about, and of course, to write about him."

Documentary materials

Hannah Arendt, which is scheduled for release next year, is a joint Israeli-German-French project, produced by Dudi Zilber and United King Films. The movie is being filmed in Germany, Israel and Luxembourg.

The title role is played by German actress Barbara Sukowa, who has worked with von Trotta on four films before. Her performance in the lead role of Rosa Luxembourg won her an outstanding actress award at the Cannes Festival.

Von Trotta decided from the beginning that each scene in the film of the Eichmann trial would be documentary materials. The only exception to that rule was a clip in which Arendt is observing Eichmann at the court. The rest of the film is from the archives, says von Trotta, because "I don't believe in actors at a moment like this". Moments like these you must see for yourself, says von Trotta.

When asked about the criticism Arendt received over her coverage of the Eichmann trial, von Trotta says she succeeded in understanding her heroine's point of view. Arendt's critics accused her of being "arrogant, cold, and insensitive", says von Trotta, "but I don't think that's true."

The trial stirred a number of emotions within Arendt but she couldn't write about these feelings in her report, says von Trotta. In her attempt to maintain objectivity people viewed her as being cold, says von Trotta.



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.

Subscribe today and save 40%

Already signed up? LOG IN


United Arab List chairman Mansour Abbas in the Knesset on Monday.

Arab Voters Will Decide if Israel's Far-right Wins Power

A young Zeschke during down time, while serving with the Wehrmacht in Scandinavia.

How a Spanish Beach Town Became a Haven for Nazis

Ayelet Shaked.

What's Ayelet Shaked's Next Move?

נתניהו עם כיפה שחורה על הראש נשען בשתי ידיו על הכותל

Israel Is Heading for Its Most 'Jewish' Election Ever

An El Al jet sits on the tarmac at John C. Munro International Airport in Hamilton, Thursday, in 2003.

El Al to Stop Flying to Toronto, Warsaw and Brussels

FILE PHOTO: A Star of David hangs from a fence outside the dormant landmark Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood in 2021.

American Judaism Is in Decline. That's Great News for American Jews