The Athena Film Festival is a four-day banquet of feature films, documentaries, and shorts that celebrates women’s creativity and accomplishments—both in the world and in film as actors, protagonists, directors, writers, and producers. The festival’s mission is to put a spotlight on women’s leadership in both real life and in the fictional world.

We’re very proud that WVFC has been attending the festival, held in New York City every February, since its creation in 2011. Each year, our correspondent Diane Vacca goes to as many films—and sits in on as many workshops—as she can in those four days. This year she has chosen two Athena films to review for us.  Here is the first: the story of a tough passage in the life of Hannah Arendt, a distinguished political thinker whose emotionally detached account of the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann provoked a furious debate about the nature of evil—and made Arendt suddenly notorious. —Ed.

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Trailer for “Hannah Arendt.”

What happens when a woman thinks rather than feels? When she investigates an unbearably painful event but seeks to explain it logically, at a time when a woman was expected to be overcome by emotion?

The woman is Hannah Arendt; her subject was the Holocaust; and her objective reporting and analysis made her a pariah in many quarters.

The world knows Arendt as one of the most influential and respected thinkers of the 20th century. Renowned director Margarethe von Trotta tells her story in Hannah Arendt, a stirring biopic that was screened at last month’s Athena Film Festival. 

When Adolf Eichmann, a former officer in the Schutzstaffel (the infamous SS) was captured in Argentina and taken to Jerusalem, The New Yorker tapped Arendt to cover his trial, one of the most sensational of the century. Arendt was a German Jew who had experienced firsthand the pain of exile and was compelled to flee the Nazi regime first in Germany and later in France. No one anticipated that her reportage would result in a third exile—ostracism by most of the Jewish community.

When the trial began in 1961, Arendt was living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. She was a leading intellectual, a philosopher and political theorist well known and respected in Europe and the United States.

ArendtTo explore the complexity of her subject, director von Trotta focuses her lens on a four-year period of Arendt’s life that culminated in a firestorm of controversy and notoriety. Through that lens, the filmmaker explores the conflict between public and private and reveals the flip side to Arendt’s hard brilliance, her manifest arrogance and conviction that she was always right (annoying, but usually true). As Arendt, the accomplished German actor Barbara Sukowa brings to light a kinder, gentler side not usually associated with Arendt: her loving relationship with her husband, her easy camaraderie with her assistant, her long friendship with Mary McCarthy, her concern for her students, and her sense of humor.

Hannah Arendt doesn’t specifically raise gender issues. Nevertheless, it provoked me to wonder if Arendt’s ideas would have been so inflammatory and so maligned if they had been presented by a man. Was it because she was a woman that she offended so many with her analytical thinking and lack of emotional fervor?

In the film, von Trotta intercuts the widely televised documentary footage of Eichmann sitting in his protective glass booth, calmly facing his accusers, with shots of Arendt intensely following each actor in the courtroom drama. Eichmann’s bland face and his emotionless voice marked him as one of those faceless bureaucrats who grind mindlessly away at their jobs.

Von Trotta and her co-screenwriter, Pamela Katz, meet the challenge of translating Arendt’s thought into cinematic terms. Arendt parsed Eichmann’s defense. “What he had done,” she reasoned, “was a crime only in retrospect,” because he had followed Hitler’s orders, which were the law of the land in the Third Reich. Who can argue with this logic? It was, of course, the standard Nazi defense, but one that the Nazis’ victims seeking justice could hardly be expected to accept. Arendt’s critics called her a “self-hating Jew” and much worse.

Eichmann’s dispassionate demeanor, his mediocrity, and his obvious lack of curiosity and imagination led Arendt to formulate her famous thesis of the “banality of evil.” Her cool analysis of Eichmann not as a diabolical monster, but an ordinary man who unthinkingly did what he was told, set off a flaming controversy that dogged Arendt for the rest of her life. No matter how well she had argued her case in the New Yorker articles and the book based on them that followed, the survivors of Auschwitz found it impossible to accept Arendt’s formulation that “the trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.”

For Arendt, nothing excused “thoughtlessness,” the failure to think. She posited a “strange interdependence of thoughtlessness and evil.” She understood that Eichmann “knew quite well what it was all about. . . . .  He was not stupid. It was sheer thoughtlessness — something by no means identical with stupidity — that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period.”

Though she was by no means the first person to ponder the “inexplicable readiness of the German Jewish community to negotiate with the Nazi authorities,” she effectively accused Jewish community leaders of collaboration with the Nazis.

It is easy to see how these remarks would enrage her peers. Arendt’s analytical thinking, divorced from her personal views, confounded the expectations of a community whose suffering was still acute. They were not listening to rational arguments.

The film gives Arendt the last word—an opportunity to confront her accusers—to explain, but not retract, her analysis. The occasion—a talk she gives to her students and intractable opponents in the audience — is fictional, but the stirring words are hers, culled from her writings.

A film by women about an exceptional woman, Hannah Arendt is definitely worth seeing when it is released in the United States in May.

Image of Hannah Arendt via Wikipedia.