The other day we went to see the new film about Hannah Arendt, directed by Margarethe von Trotta (2012). If you're into Batman films or other Christopher Nolan intelligent flics, this one isn't for you. It's slow, thoughtful, in two languages, and very well made. There is no action of the sort that Hollywood would recognize. It's about Arendt's trip to Jerusalem for Adolf Eichmann's trial in 1961 and the book she wrote about it, Eichmann in Jerusalem (Penguin Classics) - a book with one of the most important subtitles ever: a Report on the Banality of Evil.
Arendt was once a serious presence in my life. It turns out that shortly before she traveled to Jerusalem she spent an evening at our home in Chicago, though given my young age I was probably sent to bed before she arrived. As an undergraduate I read her magnificent The Origins of Totalitarianism (HBK) - easily one of the most intellectually exciting books I'd read. When I submitted my doctoral proposal for research into the decision-making process in the SS, using Eichmann's office as a case study, I noted that a side affect of the investigation would be to bolster Arendt's Banality thesis with solid historical documentation.
Well, that didn't work out. As I ploughed my way through tens of thousands of pages of Nazi documents and secondary sources about it, I was forced to recognize that she had got it all wrong. There was no banality there whatsoever, but there was personal brutality and viciousness, in the context of a profound and all-pervasive hatred of Jews. I eventually published my findings, in Hitler's Bureaucrats: The Nazi Security Police and the Banality of Evil, which had a pretty good run as turgid history books go, and was published in four languages, but never made the tiniest dent in the popularity of Arendt's thesis. Which is OK, given her stature and my lack of one.
Von Trotta's film tells the story of the creation of the Banality of Evil book and its initial reception; the fun in watching it is that we all know the end of the story: while some folks didn't initially like it, eventually it became one of the more famous books of the 20th century, so that there was a happy ending, even if it took a while to arrive - after the end of the film.
I'm not going to argue with her anymore - I've moved on from that. It's a fine film, and I recommend it.
The point I'd like to make is about one of the most minor scenes in the film. In early 1961 Arendt arrives in Jerusalem. The film puts her in St Andrew's Scottish Church, which I think didn't happen but could have, I suppose. From the balcony there's a great view of the western wall of the Old City, and when she first arrives she meets an old friend, a fellow German-born Jew, and they briefly enjoy the view, while commenting "So this is your Jerusalem!"; the camera pans along the wall of the Old City.
Which is of course nonsense. In 1961 anyone sitting on that balcony looking at the view would have noticed that there was a harsh border running right down the middle of it, with hostile snipers occasionally shooting at each other across it. No one would have celebrated "their Jerusalem"; any sane person would have mourned the tragic tearing apart of one of the world's oldest and most famous cities. Indeed, a visitor to the city would have sought out such vantage points so as to see the extent of the travesty, and the imbecility of dividing a city.
A German film director born in 1942 and thus old enough to remember the division of Berlin and Jerusalem, of all people, could be expected not to be so silly. Or maybe not: maybe that's too much to expect.