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‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’ in film 50 years later

Cogut Center for the Humanities forum includes screening of ‘Hannah Arendt’

Political theorist Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” an account of the trial of Nazi official Adolf Eichmann that caused a veritable firestorm when it was originally published in 1963, turned 50 last year. The work remains a somewhat explosive text. Arendt’s treatment of the fascist killer as a mundane bureaucrat and her catchphrase “the banality of evil” still inspire animated conflict in scholarly and popular discourse.

There is something of an Arendt moment happening on campus to coincide with this anniversary. She is included on the reading list for the English course ENGL 0710K: “Catastrophic Communities,” and the Department of Comparative Literature is offering a graduate seminar entitled COLT 2821G: “Precarity, Vulnerability, Sovereignty: Worldliness and the Work of Hannah Arendt.”

This week, the Cogut Center for the Humanities is hosting “Reconsidering Hannah Arendt,” a colloquium focused on reevaluating Arendt’s intellectual legacy. Programming began last night with a screening of “Hannah Arendt,” a film written by Pamela Katz P'13 and directed by Margarethe von Trotta that focuses on the years preceding and following the publication of “Eichmann in Jerusalem.” There will be a roundtable discussion today at 12 p.m. in Pembroke Hall 305 featuring Katz in conversation with faculty members from the Cogut Center, the Department of Modern Culture and Media and the comparative literature department.

Katz agreed to an extended interview before arriving on campus. She spoke to The Herald about Arendt’s intellectual legacy, the conceptual problem of representing thought on film and the implications of interpreting the Holocaust.


The Herald: I thought we might begin by discussing one of the more famous episodes in the afterlife of this controversial text. In 1966, the British philosopher Isaiah Berlin had the American man of letters Edmund Wilson over, and they later accuse each other of being irrationally prejudiced toward Arendt and “Eichmann in Jerusalem.” I think it’s just a fascinating moment that demonstrates that there’s something at stake in how people talk about this text and how people remember it. That this was hugely controversial not only for intellectuals in New York but also for the public at large in remembering the Holocaust. 


Katz: The way I would phrase it is that Hannah Arendt’s thoughts changed the way we talk about the Holocaust. Whether or not you agree with her, whether you love her or hate her, she introduced not only the expression “the banality of evil,” but also an entirely different way of discussing the Holocaust.

Margarethe heard that, certainly found Arendt to be a fascinating figure but feared making a film about a thinker. Because as a filmmaker, her first question to me then was, “What will we show?” At the time that she brought it up to me, I just thought the opportunity to make a film about Hannah Arendt was so wonderful we had to find a way. I said, “All I really know about her is that she made a lot of people incredibly angry. There has to be some drama in that.”

When you’re making a film about a thinker, you don’t want to make a film about one of their works unless you feel it sort of penetrates to the essence of what they had to say. What she was really talking about (in “Eichmann in Jerusalem”) was what she was talking about all her life — the relationship between the ability to think ... and the ability to commit acts of evil. It was something that Eichmann made clear to her, which is that it was possible to commit great acts of evil without any political ideology, without the ability to think about what you were doing.


So in some ways, the ability to think, or the lack thereof, not only provides an intellectual problem that Hannah Arendt is tackling in the text, but it also supplies the rhythm of the film itself. A lot of the shots are really elegant ways of depicting a woman who is really just doing philosophy. Or writing. So what were some of the challenges of trying to represent that in a screenplay to be produced into a visual medium?


This was the most active possibility that we had in making a film about a thinker. There were a number of challenges, but I think primary among them is that it’s an intellectual film, and I was trying very hard in the script to make those ideas clear, because they were so greatly misunderstood. She argues about the idea, she comes to it, people question her, she answers, and the intellectual hope of the film was that by the time you got to the speech, to put it crudely, you’d actually understand what she was talking about. And I think in no way does the film attempt to say, “You will understand and you will agree.” Maybe you will understand, and you will disagree even more. Clarity was something that was missing from the hysteria in the response to the book.

If you make a film about a thinker and you fail to illuminate her thoughts, then you fail. But if you make a film about a woman or a person, and you fail to illuminate something about their character and personality, you really do fail as a film, because film is in many ways an emotional medium. So the challenge in the most important sense was to figure out: What did this mean to her? Why did she take that tone that created so much of the misunderstanding? What was really going on here?


Your work has often engaged with representing the fascist moment in Germany and with representing the Holocaust. I’m wondering how you approached the representation of this topic, which has always been an ongoing and difficult conversation to have.


I came initially to this topic quite reluctantly. My own father’s a German Jewish emigre. He escaped in ’37 along with the rest of his family. And I’m married to a German. I’ve lived in Germany for several years. I’m an American Jew. But I am one of those typical American Jews who ran from this subject matter because I grew up on the Upper West Side of New York. Everybody was a German Jewish emigre.

It’s very difficult to touch that wound. But I feel that when we learn something that can give us a new way to reflect on what is in so many ways un-reflectable, then I think it’s a worthwhile project. David Grossman is a writer, and he has a great expression for it. “If I don’t have something valuable to contribute to the conversation, how dare I touch the wound.” I don’t like to touch the wound unless I feel very certain that I am contributing something valuable to the conversation, and I think in the case of Hannah Arendt there’s no doubt. Whatever one thinks, she contributed something to the conversation, or we wouldn’t still be talking about it.


This interview has been edited for clarity and length.


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