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.


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.

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  • Susan Klatsky Cohen September 7, 2014 at 6:38 pm

    Today’s New York Times Book Review of Eichmann Before Jerusalem by Bettina Stangneth clearly refutes Hannah Arendt’s theory of the “banality of Evil” based on recordings and interviews of Eichmann in exile that have been uncovered. These writings show a much more involved Eichmann then the “little man ” portrait he painted and Arendt fell for.

  • Diane Vacca March 20, 2013 at 2:35 pm

    I’m not qualified to attest to the veracity of Arendt’s writing. You are right that she wrote about the cooperation of the councils. I don’t know if she ascribed more power to them than they actually had, and that’s important. I do know that reporting the trial was very difficult for her. It took her two years to write six articles.

    I will read Lipstatdt’s book. Will you read Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem” and let her speak for herself directly to you?

    In the postscript of that book, Arendt appears to agree with Levi:

    “The controversy [over Arendt’s reporting] began by calling attention to the conduct of the Jewish people during the years of the Final Solution, thus following up the question, first raised by the Israeli prosecutor, of whether the Jews could or should have defended themselves. I had dismissed that question as silly and cruel, since it testified to a fatal ignorance of the conditions at the time.”

    Earlier in the book, In her description of the “extermination machinery,” Arendt had written, “The Jewish Councils of Elders were informed by Eichmann or his men of how many Jews were needed to fill each train, and they made out the list of deportees. The Jews registered, filled out innumerable forms … they then assembled at the collection points and boarded the trains. The few who tried to hide or to escape were rounded up by a special Jewish police force.”


    “Without Jewish help in administrative and police work – the final rounding up of Jews in Berlin was, as I have mentioned, done entirely by Jewish police – there would have been either complete chaos or an impossibly severe drain on German manpower.”

    Arendt quotes “a former inmate of Theresienstadt: ‘The Jewish people as a whole behaved magnificently. Only the leadership failed.'”

    It’s impossible for us to judge coerced collaboration under those circumstances.

  • Susan Cohen March 20, 2013 at 11:49 am

    I don’t disagree with Arendt because of her sex, but because of her conclusions. Blaming Jewish Authorities for cooperating with the Nazis displays an ignorance of what Jewish life was like in Europe “where others saw Nazi intimidation of Jewish leaders, she saw cooperation, if not collaboration”. She ascribed to the councils more power than they had and depicted them with one broad stroke. Some were heroic, some not. She even blames the Jews that were selected to work in the gas chambers.
    Primo Levi, who survived Auschwitz, wrote “No one is authorized to judge them, not even those who lived through the experience. I would invite anyone who dares to pass judgment to imagine, if he can, that he has lived for months or years in a ghetto, tormented by chronic hunger, fatigue and humiliation; that he has seen die around him, one by one, his beloved family; that he is cut off by the world unable to receive or transmit news”.

    I suggest you read Deborah Lipstadt’s book, “The Eichmann Trial” and some of the transcripts of the trial to get a more balanced view.

    And, for the record, Lipstadt, like Arendt, is, a women.

  • Diane Vacca March 19, 2013 at 10:14 pm

    Hannah Arendt never thought or believed that Eichmann was a clerk. She knew that he was a major figure critical to the Nazi program. He organized and oversaw the transporting of Jews from ghettos to camps.

    What Arendt did that struck such a painful chord was to note that without the Jews’ cooperation, the Nazis would never have been able to move such large numbers of people. “The daily contacts between the Jewish organizations and the Nazi bureaucracy made it so much easier for the Jewish functionaries to cross the abyss between helping Jews to escape and helping the Nazis to deport them,” Arendt wrote.

    Director/author Magarethe von Trotta didn’t glamorize Arendt, and I’m sorry if I gave the impression of doing so, for that was not my intention. She must, however, be given credit for her distinguished accomplishments.

    I do believe that Arendt’s is still the old story of how women lose even when they win. She made a strong argument, but they didn’t listen to her. Given who she was, would she have been attacked even if she had made a different argument? How would her ideas have been received if she had been a man?

  • Susan Klatsky Cohen March 19, 2013 at 6:15 pm

    Deborah E. Lipstadt’s book, “The Eichmann Trial”, refutes Hannah Arendt’s theories of “the Banality of Evil”. She proves that Eichmann was not a “clerk ” but an active leader in Hitler’s Final Solution. He was involved from 1935 onward in monitoring Jewish Organizations. In 1938 and 1939 he was in charge of the expulsion of Jews in Austria and Germany. He attended the Wannsee Conference as Heydrich’s aide and was active in planning and implementing the Final Solution. He was promoted to director of the office overseeing the deportation of Jews and other undesirables to killing centers throughout Europe. He was an integral part of The Final Solution, not a milquetoast following orders. Glamorizing Hannah Arendt and her theory does a tremendous disservice to all who perished and those that were brave enough to speak at Eichmann’s trial.

  • Diane Vacca March 19, 2013 at 2:36 pm

    @Tobysgirl: We certainly have done many things since WWII that flew in the face of our democratic ideals. We have military bases all over the globe, and we are in a constant state of war. The American public has to be vigilant and vocal in order to keep us from sliding into another conflict in the Middle East that would potentially be worse than Iraq and Afghanistan.

    The few Cassandras who bucked the tide, questioning the wisdom of invading Iraq, were shunted aside and labeled “unpatriotic.” Those of us who resist the calls for austerity, knowing that there is no crisis, that the economies of Europe were brought down by austerity, that it takes investment by the government when the private sector either refuses or is unable to produce new jobs, that — I could go on and on — we are called spendthrifts. The proposed budget cuts translate into lost jobs and will harm the most vulnerable members of society. That’s thoughtlessness, and it is evil.

  • Tobysgirl March 19, 2013 at 10:06 am

    Yes, Hannah Arendt was Eurocentric and arrogant, but she was a brilliant thinker. The problem was and is that thoughtlessness and evil continue to go hand-in-hand, and people are made uncomfortable by the mere suggestion that the acts they engage in could possibly be evil. Look at our country! Look at our country! I beg you! What we have done since WWII is horrific and abominable, yet we pat ourselves on the back for being bringers of democracy and freedom. Look at this website where the notion of women in combat brings elation, with no thought about what those women are actually doing. We are in no danger, we are not insecure, but every day we are creating enemies through our foreign policies and invasion of sovereign nations. Hannah Arendt’s words are as relevant today as they ever were, and are as unpopular as they ever were.