This straightforward biopic tells a crucial true story, but it lacks the excitement needed for a classic. I’ve considered, for the past day, how to turn the story of a philosopher/writer into a cinematic experience that would jump off the screen and sink the hook. It would probably need to abandon straight realism and instead become more fantastical.
Hannah Arendt was a political theorist and college professor who covered the trial of Adolf Eichmann for The New Yorker magazine. Eichman was snatched, in Buenos Aires, by Mossad agents in 1960 and taken to Jerusalem for a war crimes trial. Arendt, who had never seen the Nazis in person, wrote to The New Yorker requesting the assignment. The editor was glad to send her to cover the trial, but the world was unprepared for her analysis.
Eichmann, like many of the others, claimed to be following orders. He didn’t set the policies, merely carried them out. He held no ill will toward Jews, he said. It was a simple matter of efficiency and obedience to the system. If the system had been different, he would have acted differently.
The Banality of Evil
When Arendt studied Eichmann’s defense, she found him to be credible in his mediocrity and subservience to the will of the Reich. In her analysis of the evil of fascism, it was a million willing bureaucrats dutifully following orders that enabled the Hitlers of the world to thrive and to wreak havoc on humanity. The mindlessness of bureaucrats following orders was the key to understanding modern industrial scale atrocity.
Top down hierarchical fascism erases the ability to think for one’s self. That’s the point. Thinking is verboten. Thinking is replaced by operational orders and displaced by catchy propaganda. This evil is by no means limited to the Nazis, and is instead a characteristic of the species: to be found anywhere and everywhere.
Theoretically, this may have flown. But Arendt took it a step further. Jewish leaders collaborated with the Nazis. These facts came out at the trial, and they had to be reconciled: not by most, but by Arendt. It was her duty to tell the whole truth that sparked a firestorm of controversy and character assassination.
I believe another version of the Arendt story could elevate this tale to new heights. For starters, Arendt was interned in a French camp after the Nazis took over. This was only talked about, not shown. Words are a far weaker tool than showing the terror of the camps on screen. Cinema is about the images first, the words a distant second.
Also, Arendt never actually met Eichmann. Here is where a movie can take the experience to the next level, that fantastical element I hinted at. Arendt v. Eichmann in the same room, now that would be something a film can do that would justify the price of admission.
Another film could also open up the field, bringing in Millgram’s experiments, bringing in the death doctor Mengele, who was mentioned but never shown. There are many threads to pull at if the story was to gather up the ideational connections, rather than relying on straight chronological reality.
These are some of the most crucial discoveries and observations of the 20th century. They are relevant beyond imagining. Bureaucratic evil grows around us daily. Whether shuffling papers, listening to our communications, flying an armed drone, or clicking a mouse, this mindless following of orders is a clear and present danger to humanity. It will persist, and it must be understood and challenged.
Hannah Arendt was a fealess political philosopher who smacked the world across the face to dispel their simplistic and childish notions of white hats and black hats. It was the grey, banal hats in the shadows that made evil run on schedule. And we must be ever vigilant and unafraid to speak out against them.