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Daniel J. Goldhagen’s 1996 book “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” claimed the Holocaust was possible because German anti-Semitism differed from its counterparts elsewhere in Europe insofar as it aimed at the complete elimination of Jews.
Whereas the latter argument is somewhat tautological, the functionalist thesis has no answer for why modernity engendered mass slaughter on an industrial scale only in Germany and why European societies under Nazi occupation varied widely in their response to the Nazis’ expulsion, deportation and murder of Jews.
The question of Jewish cooperation was taken up in a vastly more nuanced way than Arendt’s by the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman. Instead of accusing Jewish leaders of self-aggrandizement, Bauman, author of the 1989 book “Modernity and the Holocaust,” emphasized the paradoxical nature of bureaucratically organized genocide in which victims’ cooperation seemed like a perfectly rational, yet of course self-defeating, strategy.
As a period film, “Hannah Arendt” pays little homage to the 50 years of research that have been produced since Eichmann’s death. It paints a vivid picture of the German Jewish émigré community in New York, which continued to cultivate German language and customs and made Arendt’s American friends, notably Mary McCarthy, feel oddly out of place.
The film portrays the falling-out between Arendt and her erstwhile mentor, Zionist Kurt Blumenfeld, sensitively and without taking sides. It seems less even-handed in its rendering of Arendt’s interactions with her friend and New School colleague Hans Jonas. Arendt’s complex relationship with her former teacher, the philosopher and Nazi apologist Martin Heidegger, is treated only superficially and somewhat sappily.
The script, written jointly by Von Trotta and Pam Katz, a New York-based screenwriter, is smart and nimble, weaving together dialogue on the political and the personal in multiple languages. Original footage from the Eichmann trial is interspersed with the film’s account of Arendt in the court’s pressroom and in conversation with colleagues and friends in Jerusalem and New York.
Barbara Sukowa bears no physical resemblance whatsoever to Arendt, which has the effect of letting us focus on the character while leaving behind any sentimental fixation on looks. Janet McTeer gives a forceful performance as the novelist McCarthy, a close friend of Arendt’s who stood by her when most others abandoned her.
Anyone with a passing interest in 20th-century social theory will benefit from seeing this film, but no one should expect to receive from it an education in either philosophy or Holocaust history. It succeeds best as a sociology of intellectuals who were grappling with one of the fundamental cataclysms of the 20th century that they themselves had barely escaped — genocide on an industrial scale.
Beate Sissenich is a visiting scholar at New York University’s Center for European and Mediterranean Studies and author of “Building States Without Society” (Lexington Books, 2007).