I just watched a terrible film about important things.
Hannah Arendt is a biographical drama about a German philosopher. A Jewish thinker who fled Germany then Nazi-occupied France, Arendt was hired by The New Yorker magazine in 1961 to report and reflect on the trial of Adolph Eichmann.
Eichmann was a senior Nazi official and one of the central managers of the Holocaust. He fled to Argentina after the war, living in hiding for over a decade before his capture by the Israeli secret service. He was tried for murder and crimes against humanity in Jerusalem, found guilty, and hanged.
The trial was an international media event, and sparked intellectual uproar (if there is such a thing) in part due to Arendt’s writing. She coined the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe the actions and world-view of Eichmann. Rather than seeing him as a Satanic monster, Arendt argued that his evil sprang from a submission to dull, bureaucratic fiat. He abdicated his obligation to think, she argued, and became a cipher for the will of the Reich and of Hitler. Eichmann did not follow evil thoughts to commit his evil actions, Arendt said. He was a mediocre man who committed evil precisely because he gave no thought to his orders at all.
This very idea made some people furious. Critics felt it diluted Eichmann’s responsibility for mass murder. But that was not the most incendiary thing Arendt wrote. She argued that some European Jewish leaders (particularly managers of ghettos in Poland and elsewhere) were in the grip of that same banal evil, and essentially collaborated with the Holocaust. By seeking accommodation with the Reich, Arendt argued, Jewish leadership acquiesced to evil in a similar manner to Eichmann. Without the help of community leaders in concentrating Jewish populations, confiscating property and submitting to the Ghetto mentality, “there would have been chaos and plenty of misery, but the total number of victims would hardly have been between four-and-a-half and six million people”. Again, she argued: evil emerged from an unthinking submission to bureaucratic decree. For this, she was vilified. Lifelong friendships broke down. Her academic career was wrecked. Yet she refused to moderate her views.
Great stuff, right? Whether you think Arendt’s ideas were brilliant or batty, this is wonderful territory for a deep, powerful, “thinky” film. I am so glad people wanted to make it. But the result was appalling.
I’m in an acting class, taught by JoAnna Beckson. We study the Meisner technique. My dumbed-down, one-sentence summary of Meisner is: “actually feel something real – in the moment - while you are performing in character”. I’m sure that is a hopelessly naïve description, but it’s the best one-line definition I can write today, in this moment. The technique can be abused by self-indulgent actors, like everything can. But I already see how powerful the training is. If she wants to convince an audience that her character is feeling emotional turmoil, the actor must feel that turmoil, in the moment. I did not believe FOR ONE SECOND that any of the principle performers in this film (Arendt, her husband, her editor, her friends, her critics) felt ANYTHING that their characters were supposed to be feeling. Their acting technique boiled down to: “if your character is happy, make a happy face. If they are worried, make a worried face. And if you can’t think of anything else to do, look vaguely tense about this whole situation”. It left me speechless. If you can’t feel real feelings about THIS kind of subject matter (hope, despair, justice, evil…) what CAN you feel?
Practically every performance in the film was also choked with classical stage drama mannerisms. Whenever people were happy to see each other, then didn’t just “feel” it. They “acted” it. They held each others’ forearms and gazed sentimentally into their eyes and TOLD each other how happy they were to see them. I don’t know who exactly is to blame for this (script, director and performer all seem guilty) but it was dreadful.
The director also seemed to think this: “back in the 1960s, most people smoked cigarettes. Therefore, everyone in this film MUST smoke cigarettes at all times, and use the action of smoking as a prop and crutch to support how INTENSE they feel about all these INTENSE ideas flying around”. Every puff of smoke and flick of ash was a distraction from the main thrust of the film: it was infuriating. The work is supposed to be about the human struggles of good and evil, loyalty and betrayal, love and hate. It is NOT about the fucking cigarettes.
But I’m glad I saw the film. You learn as much from the bad as the good. It’s a perfect example of what NOT to do, both as an actor and a director. And without it, I would never have known much about the Eichmann trial, Arendt, or her ideas. So I’m giving one–and-a-half cheers for this utterly terrible film that taught me a lot.