Monday, June 23, 2014

The Hannah Arendt movie

Yes, this movie came out two years ago, and I have been anxious to see it for three, but such are the privations of living in paradise: we are not exactly the market for this kind of film. (My husband protests that the world slights "San Diego intellectuals," but our effort to identify even one candidate for this title resulted only in the smug guy who runs D.G. Wills.) But Netflix instant is a great democratic leveler, and now the movie is available on it. Everyone else who cares has already seen it, but what can we who dwell amid the swaying palms and rolling surf do about that?

As one of my friends observed when it came out, it's hard to make a compelling movie about people whose main activities are reading and thinking. Given this structural obstacle, this one was not too bad. But maybe its inability to get beyond not-too-bad suggests that movies cannot be "philosophical" by depicting the activity of philosophy, and are better off illuminating philosophy's questions by indirect means. The movie-fication of Arendt's understanding of Eichmann and evil was basically accurate and coherent, but her arguments are all conveyed via her monologues to her absolutely rapt students (these lectures are all of five minutes long! no wonder the students can manage to look so intensely absorbed) or in harangues to her cocktail party guests. These scenes alternated with absurd shots of Arendt lying on a couch chain-smoking with her eyes closed, to indicate "thinking." (Side note: These characters in this movie smoke as much as the characters in Cheever drink. Mid-century America really must have been the greatest time to be alive for lovers of permanent mild chemical stimulation.) (Experiment in living: if I lie on my couch and chain-smoke for four hours a day for the next year, will my dissertation write itself into brilliance? I'm sure I would enjoy testing this, but less sure I would enjoy the results.)

An important part of the movie is friendship and conversation, but the cheesiness of the dialogues is directly proportional to the clarity of the monologues. This seems to be a product of research almost too well done, since much of the dialogue is taken from Arendt's letters, and sounds unnatural when put into conversation. This is especially true of the exchanges between Arendt and Mary McCarthy, who comes off as a very sophisticated airhead. But it's even true of the tender conversations with her husband, who is clearly intended to come across as a serious thinker in his own right and a kind of philosophical muse to Arendt, but who actually only repeats one tired point for the entire movie (it was illegal to kidnap Eichmann and try him in Israel) even when this point's relevance is long past. It is never clear how Arendt's friendships provide more than moral support, encouraging her to keep going under adverse conditions, but not really contributing substantively to her thinking. When she is shown arguing with her friends, it's a battle of wills: she insists that Eichmann is mediocre and not an anti-Semite, her friends insist the opposite. Then someone swoops in and changes the subject before they come to blows. There was only one scene where it seemed that one of Arendt's friends says something she did not think of herself: when Kurt Blumenfeld explains that the generation of children born after the Holocaust blamed their parents for not resisting because they didn't grasp the totalizing, systemic nature of the Final Solution, and that the testimony of survivors at the Eichmann trial was intended to reveal this to them. This point was connected to the backlash against Arendt's claims about the complicity of European Jewish leaders, but I'm not sure this is clear in the movie. At some point very late in the film, she does admit that "resistance was impossible," but it's not clear what this means given how much the movie dwells on Arendt's own escape from France.

Another reason I think the depiction of Arendt's friendships falls flat is that the movie indulges pretty shamelessly in national stereotyping. There were the gregarious but intellectually shallow Americans (McCarthy, the New School prof, Norman Podhoretz and Lionel Trilling) contrasted with the brooding, profoundly insightful Europeans (Arendt, Blucher, Hans Jonas until he defects to the stupid side, and even Arendt's secretary), and in this case, it added a third type: the passionately nationalistic but self-deluded Israelis (Blumenfeld, Hausner, the non-appearing Ben-Gurion). Much is made of how ignorant Americans are of foreign languages, and the students in "Advanced German" whom Arendt teaches sound like they'd barely pass a first-year course. When Podhoretz and Trilling oppose Arendt's Eichmann articles, they're dismissed as opportunistic naifs who never had to personally flee Nazis and so have no credibility. The multi-lingual Arendt with her dark personal experience of the rise of totalitarianism is the only person who can be right about Eichmann. This clearly poses a difficulty with explaining why other German Jews with comparable personal experiences and linguistic abilities like Blumenfeld, Jonas, and Gershom Scholem (seemingly merged into Blumenfeld's character in this film) also objected to Arendt's book. And the answer the movie gives us is basically that they're stubbornly over-committed to Zionism. This is forgivable because they've been though a lot, what with the Holocaust and all, but ultimately, they are just too angry and close-minded to see clearly. Reason is on Arendt's side, passion is on theirs. (Which, incidentally, seems incompatible with her younger self's incomprehensible but apparently seductive soliloquy about "passionate thinking" to a clownish Heidegger in one of the Heidegger flashback scenes that this movie really could've done without.)

And, to be fair, I suspected in advance that the film would demonize Arendt's detractors while turning her into a paragon of free thought against their venal attempts at censorship, and was watching for confirmations of my suspicion. Most of the movie is not this lame. But the depiction of Blumenfeld's and Jonas's intractable, unreasoning opposition after Arendt's articles are published was pretty flimsy. Surely Arendt was not the only person in the world to think seriously and unhysterically about evil and totalitarianism? If, as the movie suggests, her main qualifications to think seriously about this were contained in her life experiences (a claim which real-life Arendt rejected) and the rigor of her education, then Blumenfeld's and Jonas's claims should be as strong. Plus, there is a scene where sinister Mossad agents ambush Arendt at her country house demanding that she retract her book (over whose printing they have no control) and threatening to ban it in Israel (which they also can't do). And she bravely stands up to these fascist thugs (see, Jews can be fascists too, especially if they are Israeli) and says no! That's straight-up agit-prop.

Even though I think it tries to avoid this, the movie depicts "philosophy" as consisting in feeling agonized over something in your personal life, lying around, producing a deep thought, and then browbeating the public with your thought. This requires great courage, because the more brilliant your thought is, the more strenuously the public will oppose you. I suspect that it's really just too hard to visually depict the reciprocal relationships between reading, talking, thinking, and writing, and that the best way to experience them short of actually living them is not to watch a movie about people who thought but to read the books their thoughts are in. I'm not actually sure how this movie would even be interesting to anyone who hasn't read Arendt, or that it alone would pique anyone's interest in reading her. But I can see the appeal of a visual depiction for those who already love Arendt.


Emily Hale said...

I'd take swaying palm trees and rolling surf any day.

Miss Self-Important said...

You are fully welcome to join me in this academic movie desert, or even switch places with me.

abrahamandsarah said...

Thank goodness it cuts away from the sex scene with Heidegger before any clothes come off.

Miss Self-Important said...

Well, "some things are bigger than two people," Arendt explains to McCarthy when the latter asks, "Was he the love of your life, Hannah?" This might be why they didn't show the sex, because it was just too transcendent. It is also an example of the horribleness of the movie's dialogue.

Anonymous said...

This former San Diegan and, alas, Arendt groupie missed the Arendt movie when it came out in other cities then decamped to pastures STILL without said flick. Thank goodness for Netflix!

Withywindle said...

Your next post needs to be the YA version of Hannah Arendt & Martin Heidegger. Frankly, the tale needs depressingly little adaptation to fit the conventions of the genre.

Miss Self-Important said...

Anonymous: Perhaps your new pasture screened this movie before you decamped, but yes, now available in all pastures.

Withywindle: Especially if you borrow the dialogue from this movie.
"Is Martin the love of your life?" Hans asked hopefully, brushing a wisp of Hannah's hair gently from her forehead. What he was hoping, in case you missed the innuendo, was that HE would be the love of Hannah's life.
"Oh Hans, you don't understand. Some things are greater than two people!" Hannah said, and then sobbed. Hans embraced her.
"What does that mean, Hannah? Is he or is he not the love of your life? Or am I? Or is it Gunther Stern? Or Karl Jaspers? Or Heinrich Blucher whom you haven't met yet? OR WHO?!?" Hans implored.
"Oh I'm so confused!," Hannah responded, between sobs. "It must be all my adolescent hormones! Growing up is so very confusing! Or maybe it is just thinking. You know, philosophers have always divided reason from passion, so that thinking was reason, but can there not be passionate thinking, Hans? Can there not be?"
"You think passionately, my Hannah. I can try to think passionately with you. Together, we will maybe be able to bridge the gap between reason (me) and passion (you) and think passionately!"
"Hans, you just don't understand me! Perhaps it IS only Martin who can truly understand me, and being, and nothingness...but mainly me." Hannah looked off into the darkness of the basement in which they were sitting because they were hiding from the Nazis, who were searching for them to send them to a concentration camp where they would be killed.
"If Martin really loved you, Hannah, don't you think maybe he'd try to save you instead of being a Nazi?" Hans reasoned.
"No, it's so much more complex than that. He told me he doesn't understand politics and all that. The Rector's address...he didn't know what he was saying. He is a philosopher caught up in things beyond his expertise. Politics is so complicated, Hans! Who can ever know which is the right side?"
"I'm pretty sure we can know that the Nazis are not the right side."
"Yes, that is true. I'm sorry, but the radical/banal evil of totalitarianism has corrupted everyone's moral sense, even that of the victims. Like me."
"Oh Hannah, it happens to the best of us. Now will you love me?"
"Unfortunately, Hans, I have just been diagnosed with a terminal illness and must face my death alone, here in this basement."
"You were? Like, just now?"
"Yes, just now. Turns out my confusion wasn't due to adolescent hormones after all."
"Oh my Hannah! I will stay with you to the end! And I will also text Martin to let him know, in case you prefer to have him stay with you, but I really think you should choose me."
"Let me call my friends in other basements and ask them for advice and get back to you, ok Hans?"

abrahamandsarah said...

I can only hope that the Canadian journalist twitterer's Strauss novel will be half as good as that.

Miss Self-Important said...

Let's not discourage the fellow! I'm looking forward to the >140 character exposition of his many sexy theories of Strauss and the right. Since he's not apparently not too discriminating about the information he's fed by online correspondents, maybe he can even use this material for clarificatory purposes.

Alpheus said...

I just saw this movie. I don't know much about Hannah Arendt, but I've always imagined her as a compelling personality, a force of nature. This Arendt struck me as surprisingly colorless -- dare I say banal? Maybe that's too cute.

On the whole, my reactions match yours, though being less enthusiastic about Arendt generally, I had less patience for what I found irritating. I kept expecting that the Heidegger flashbacks were going to go somewhere, but they didn't. It was as if the filmmakers thought they had to make a pretense of dealing with the Arendt-Heidegger relationship. Leaving it out altogether would have made the movie look like it was airbrushing her past. Delving too deeply, on the other hand, could only make Arendt look weak and/or compromised. (If you think I'm wrong about this, please correct me; as I say, I don't know all that much about her.) So in the end, they walked a really weird line, saying, in effect, that her relationship with Heidegger was quite important while at the same time discouraging the viewer from thinking about how or why.

I suppose it would have been impossible for the movie to deal in any serious way with Heidegger's intellectual influence upon Arendt, but, as I watched it, I realized that Arendt's characterization of Eichmann is essentially Heideggerian: the Nazi was a man -- in fact "das Man"! -- trapped in Verfallenheit/Alltäglichkeit, refusing to live an authentic existence through attentiveness and concern. I'm sure someone else has thought of this before.

So I got that from the movie (which I'm pretty sure it didn't intend). But, on the whole, I'd rather watch your YA version of Hannah Arendt.

Miss Self-Important said...

I think too much is made of the Arendt-Heidegger affair, maybe due to the dearth of salacious sex stories in philosophy, when it hardly bears mentioning except in a comprehensive intellectual history of Arendt's thought or postwar German thinkers. Arendt was one of several Heidegger students - Jonas, who's in the movie, and some others in whom I have little interest - who went on to independent acclaim, and yet no one seems as concerned by Heidegger's influence on them as by his influence on Arendt (except maybe Richard Wolin, who is concerned about all associations with Heidegger). More specifically, no one seems as inclined to impugn their work as either simply derivative or maliciously and unconsciously derivative (which seems contradictory, but is the accusation that Pangle makes) as they are to impugn Arendt's. None of these others slept w/ him, but he was not homosexual as far as I know, so that relationship was unavailable to them. Deeper intellectual influence than would be had from speech alone is not, however, attained by an exchange of bodily fluids.

The Heidegger interludes in the movie added a vague (and as you say, directionless and unresolved) element of scandalous drama, and maybe in some way were intended to balance the insistent emphasis on Blucher's philandering (in the spirit of gender equality, Arendt bonked people illicitly too!), but I don't think the director needed to "deal" w/ the relationship at all in the film. The Eichmann trial and her book on it had nothing to do w/ Heidegger himself, and his intellectual influence on it was no greater than his influence on other works of hers. It was one of her less "philosophical" works, though the movie omits all the discussion of international law in it and hones in on the angry-making parts.

Alpheus said...

I presume you're right that the Heidegger-Arendt thing is overplayed, but it's not just the sexual affair, is it? IIRC, A. reconciled with H. after the war and spoke up for him when his other former students were more reticent.

I don't doubt that H.'s other students were profoundly influenced by him too. And, maybe more importantly, A. and others came to H. because of their own interests: for the intellectually motivated, studying under someone isn't just a one-way street. In his last book on gnosticism, I think Jonas is pretty emphatic in saying that he sees the spiritual crisis of the Hellenistic/Roman worlds as closely parallel to the modern crisis to which H.'s existentialism is meant to be a response. His understanding of the one shades into his understanding of the other.

Miss Self-Important said...

Maybe. The main Heidegger-related accusation I've seen leveled against her has been that her thought was unduly influenced by Heidegger (=Nazism), with the precise amount of influence that is "undue" depending on who's making the accusation. But the basic question this accusation points to is the same as the one that she insufficiently distanced herself from H. after the war - how much does H.'s Nazism taint H's philosophy such that we should worry about whether his students might be secretly/unconsciously spouting Nazism in their own work?

I find this question monumentally boring. I can hardly understand H., so the first question about him worth asking is, "What the hell is he saying?", while "Does his Nazism invalidate what he wrote?" is a kind of shortcut to avoid the effort necessary to answer the first question. I've read (and I think understood) more of Carl Schmitt than H., and based on that, I'd say that his being a Nazi is a relevant biographical fact that fails to diminish the importance and originality of his work. That might be a sad fact b/c it suggests that the nature of modern politics is such that a Nazi jurist offers us real insights into it, but so it is.

There were Hellenistic existentialists? Is that just a strange way of describing Epicureanism?

Alpheus said...

I guess I hadn't quite grasped the extent to which Arendt's critics might be saying "don't take her seriously as a philosopher." I wouldn't want to argue that evaluation of the philosophy should proceed on the basis of a philosopher's personal history, or, worse, his personal associations. OTOH, I think it's a sad truth that the personal myths of various philosophers -- from Socrates onward -- decisively influence the reception of their ideas.

Jonas isn't saying that there were Hellenistic existentialists, just that existentialism and the new religions of the late Hellenistic/Roman world were reacting to a similar cultural situation in which the reigning philosophies have become inimical to the human sense of agency. Epicureanism would be an example of this, since it reduces the soul to a mere physical object and denies that human ideas of meaning have any counterpart in nature; in fact, Epicureanism corresponds well to the "scientism" to which folks like Heidegger objected. Stoicism tried to argue that the universe was ruled by a meaningful providence, but for the ordinary individual that providence could easily seem like nothing more than a blanket denial of human freedom. According to Jonas, the new religions, of which gnosticism was the most radical, were trying, like the existentialists, to reclaim the individual's sense of freedom and worth. If I remember correctly, he finds some interesting parallels between the gnostics' language and that of Heidegger.

Miss Self-Important said...

Are you sure Socrates is the best example of the regrettable ways hearsay dominates our understanding of thinkers?

Some people criticize Arendt for what she actually argued, especially her elevation of Greek agonistic politics (either b/c it's a distorted picture of Greek politics or b/c they don't like it as a model for our politics). But that kind of objection is too academic for this movie, and for most of the popular media chatter about her. There I think the criticism is mainly of the "we should/shouldn't take her seriously b/c of Jews/Heidegger/Hilberg" flavor. It could also be said that those who do take Arendt seriously also sometimes go too far in trying to piece together an entire Arendtian metaphysics out of her more abstract works like The Human Condition. I don't think she was that systematic, but she was certainly more than just a journalist.

So would Christianity be existentialist (or proto-existentialist) on this account?

Alpheus said...

Do you mean that it's all hearsay with Socrates? I just meant that his biography has always been more influential than the ideas he purportedly held. I'm sure there are better/worse examples.

I had to Google "Hilberg Arendt"; I didn't know that story. One result of the movie and this conversation is a renewed determination to read her theoretical stuff.

Short answer on Christianity: sort of. Jonas understands that existentialism and gnosticism/Christianity/mystery religions are different solutions, but he thinks they conceive of the problem in similar ways, and -- again, if I'm not misremembering -- thinks they're open to similar criticisms from the proponents of the philosophies they're trying to displace. All this is just one chapter in "Gnostic Religion," but I found it pretty compelling.