‘What kind of resistance is possible against a world without mercy?’

Hannah ArendtThe LARB has published an interesting essay by Wen Stephenson that draws upon wisdom from Hannah Arendt for those living at the dawn of a new ‘era of increasing global instability, ripe for all the varieties of political and social evil’.

The essay includes reflections on subjects such as totalitarianism, human rights, making judgements, collective guilt, conscience, evil, making moral choices, nonviolence, civil disobedience, and crimes against humanity.

And on empathy:

[Em]pathy, though much celebrated, is not always a reliable impulse toward moral action – that it can cut both ways. Because our natural inclination to empathize with the victims of crime and injustice, while generally a good thing, when mixed with our tribal instincts – our biases, conscious or not, in favor of people like ourselves, members of our own communities — can lead to a dehumanization of the stranger, the other, especially if that other is the perpetrator (or perceived to be) of a crime. It’s easy to empathize with a victim, as one should; to empathize with a murderer – to see ourselves in another who violates our deepest values and taboos – is something else, something that may seem beyond our merely human capacity.

You can read the whole piece here.

Waiting for ‘Hannah Arendt’

Hannah ArendtIt’s been a while since I really looked forward to a film’s release, but I’m on the edge of my seat awaiting Margarethe von Trotta’s award-winning Hannah Arendt. The film’s focus is Arendt’s controversial reporting for the The New Yorker on the 1961 Adolf Eichmann trial, what Arendt named the ‘show trial’. Of course, one of the reasons for why this and other similar trials were so named by Arendt was because of her deep-seated conviction, expressed in a letter to her Doktorvater Karl Jaspers and published in Correspondence 1926-1969, that ‘the Nazi crimes … explode the limits of the law’. Indeed, ‘that is precisely what constitutes their monstrousness. For these crimes’, she continues, ‘no punishment is severe enough. It may well be essential to hang Göring, but it is totally inadequate. That is, this guilt, in contrast to all criminal guilt, oversteps and shatters any and all legal systems. That is the reason why the Nazis in Nuremberg are so smug … We are simply not equipped to deal, on a human, political level, with a guilt that is beyond crime’. As she would write in Eichmann in Jerusalem: ‘The purpose of a trial is to render justice, and nothing else; even the noblest of ulterior purposes — “the making of a record of the Hitler regime which would withstand the test of history” … — can only detract from the law’s main business: to weigh the charges brought against the accused, to render judgment, and to mete out due punishment’.

I’m really interested to see how von Trotta deals with these difficult themes in the film. By the way, for those interested in reading an outstanding and critical (here meant in both senses of the word) engagement with these ideas may I commend to you Lawrence Douglas’ The Memory of Judgment: Making Law and History in the Trials of the Holocaust, a book that I shall probably re-read in preparation for seeing the film.

The film’s synopsis reads:

HANNAH ARENDT is a portrait of the genius that shook the world with her discovery of “the banality of evil.” After she attends the Nazi Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem, Arendt dares to write about the Holocaust in terms no one had ever heard before. Her work instantly provokes a scandal, and Arendt stands strong as she is attacked by friends and foes alike. But as the German-Jewish émigré struggles to suppress her own painful asso- ciations with the past, the film exposes her beguiling blend of arrogance and vulnerability – revealing a soul defined and derailed by exile.

The film portrays Hannah Arendt (Barbara Sukowa) during the four years, (1961 to 1964), that she observes, writes, and endures the reception of her work on the trial of the Nazi war criminal, Adolf Eichmann. Watching Arendt as she attends the trial, staying by her side as she is both barraged by her critics and supported by a tight band of loyal friends, we experience the intensity of this powerful Jewish woman who fled Nazi Germany in 1933. The fierce, chainsmoking Arendt is happy and flourishing in America, but her penetrating vision makes her an outsider wherever she goes.

When Arendt hears that the Israeli Secret Service has kidnapped Adolf Eichmann in Buenos Aires and brought him to Jerusalem, she is determined to report on the trial. William Shawn (Nicholas Woodeson), the editor of “The New Yorker” magazine, is thrilled to have such an esteemed intellectual cover the historic process, but Arendt’s husband, Heinrich Blücher (Axel Milberg), is not so sure. He worries that this encounter will put his beloved Hannah back into what they both call the “dark times.”

Arendt enters the tense Jerusalem courtroom expecting to see a monster and instead she finds a nobody. The shallow mediocrity of the man cannot be easily reconciled with the profound evil of his actions, but Arendt quickly realizes that this contrast is the puzzle that must be solved. Arendt returns to New York and as she begins to discuss her groundbreaking interpretation of Adolf Eichmann, fear ripples through her best friend, Hans Jonas (Ulrich Noethen). Her philosophical approach will only cause confusion, he warns. But Arendt defends her courageous and original perspective and Heinrich supports her all the way. After two years of intense thought,

additional reading, and further debate with her best American friend, Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer) her German researcher and friend, Lotte Köhler (Julia Jentsch) and of course, constant consultation with Heinrich, she finally delivers her manuscript. The publication of the article in “The New Yorker” provokes an immediate scandal in the U.S., Israel, and soon in the rest of the world.

HANNAH ARENDT provides an insight into to the profound importance of her ideas. But even more moving is the chance to understand the warm heart and icy brilliance of this complex and deeply compelling woman.

So far, I’ve been unable to find out any details about when the film opens here in New Zealand (only that it seems that Curious is bringing it out here) and have had to try and satisfy myself with watching the promos and reading a few reviews, including this one published in Der Spiegel. If anyone has any details about when and where I can see it south of the Waitaki, then please let me know.