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Barbara Sukowa plays German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt, the... (Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films)
LENOX -- How do you make a movie about a person who earned her fame by -- of all things -- thinking?
"When you go to a producer and you say you want to make a movie about a philosopher, they don’t start jumping up and down," said "Hannah Arendt" co-writer Pam Katz.
But Hannah Arendt’s story, for Katz and for director and co-writer Margarethe von Trotta, is one entirely worthy of telling. And they are not alone in thinking so. Their 2012 movie "Hannah Arendt" was nominated for six Lola awards (the German Oscar) and was recognized for Best Actress and Best Film. The film is being screened in theaters internationally, including in Lenox at the Berkshire Jewish Film Festival on Monday, Aug. 19.
"She is someone who is so creative, so courageous, so maligned," Katz said.
Arendt’s 1963-64 coverage of Nazi Adolf Eichmann’s show trial in Jerusalem, first published in the New Yorker, was so controversial that journalist Amos Elon called the ensuing response a "civil war" among intellectuals. A German-Jewish refugee herself, Arendt was labled as a self-hating Jew by some, and lauded as a political and ethical genius by others.
Eichmann was in charge of the logistics of mass deportations to extermination camps during the Holocaust. He appeared inarticulate and pathetic to Arendt at the trial, though. She thought he was not the archetypal monster so many at the trial wanted him to be.
Since then, the phrase she coined in the book’s title, "the banality of evil," has remained in the public dialogue, and, Katz and von Trotta say, has been too often misunderstood. A one-phrase summary of the banality of evil would undercut the effort of the film to make it make sense in full and in context.
Katz said a major intention of the biopic, which focuses on Arendt’s coverage of the trial and the ensuing public response, is to clarify what she actually meant by this famous phrase.
"We wanted to remove ‘banality of evil’ from the popular soundbite circuit," she said.
To professor Roger Berkowitz, academic director of the Hannah Arendt Study for Politics and the Humanities at Bard College, the public’s reaction to Arendt’s concept of the banlity of evil supports Arendt’s claim in that they often misinterpret it.
"The entire premise of the banality of evil is that we simplify ideas into a cliche," Berkowitz said.
Since the publication of Arendt’s "Eichmann in Jerusalem," Berkowitz said, many people have done exactly that, reducing the idea into an oversimplified slogan. Arendt, a German Jew, saw firsthand the way that acting without thinking could have dire consequences.
"I insist we think about what she’s really saying," Berkowitz said.
Berkowitz has given talks at screenings of "Hannah Arendt," encouraging discussion. At the Lenox screening, retired Bard professor Suzanne Vromen will lead a post-film question-and-answer session.
She calls it a film about thinking. It is not a documentary but a fictional piece deeply informed by Arendt’s biography.
"As long as you know what is not true," Vromen said, "That’s fine.
All too aware that truth is subjective, the film’s writers meticulously researched her life but told her story in a shape that would help to explain her thesis. The events are sometimes stretched or tinged.
In a culminating scene, Sukowa as Arendt delivers a moving presentation of her thesis to a classroom of rapt students. Katz threaded together the compelling speech from at least five of Arendt’s works, to give what she perceives as the root of the truth to the banality of evil. The words are a composite of Arendt’s work, with Katz’s analysis moving it along.
"People say, ‘I was there when she gave that speech,’" Katz said. "Of course, it doesn’t exist."
In the seven years it took to make the film, Katz and von Trotta read all of Arendt’s published work, met with scholars and spoke with people who knew her. Actress Barbara Sukowa, who plays the title character, read Arendt’s work in both English, the language they were written in, and in Arendt’s native German.
Scenes are spoken in the language they would have been in real life, reflecting Arendt’s statelessness, contributing to a feeling of loss which permeated her work. In one scene, German ex-pats discuss politics in Arendt’s apartment. Arendt’s friend, English-speaking Mary McCarthy, is frustrated that she can’t follow along. Arendt missed the sounds of German, yet it wasn’t safe for her to be in her homeland.
"The movie is extraordinarily faithful to the truth once you define what the truth is," Katz said, adding that everyone has his or her own perception about a person.
Arendt is portrayed in the film as a woman who stands by her thoughts, able to separate emotion from intellect and stand by her ideas.
"For the most part people are really hungry for the debate that Hannah Arendt wanted to provoke," Berkowitz said.
Berkowitz sees her thoughts as pertinent today.
"We live in a world today in which people crave to be a part of movements," he said, citing groups including the Tea Party and the Occupy movement as ways that people are banding together when they feel powerless in traditional avenues for change such as government.
Nazis have become a cliched bad guy in today’s world, but for Arendt, who saw their evil firsthand, covering the Eichmann trial was perhaps her last chance to see a Nazi in person.
"It’s exploring the relationship between the ability to think and the ability to commit evil," Katz said. Arendt hoped that thinking would stop evil.
Margie Metzger, artistic director of Knesset Israel’s 27th annual Berkshire Jewish Film Festival, chose the 14 films screened at the festival from about 100 she watched. She relishes it as an opportunity to give attention to important but unknown films.
"Every time you make an independent film that’s serious, the next step is to marginalize it," Katz said. The film has received attention from people interested in Jews and the Holocaust, in strong women and in philosophers. But she, as well as Meltzer, voiced an interest in making clear that the film is for all audiences: not just Jews, not just intellectuals.
"It’s certainly a Jewish film, but not only," Vromen said.
"I think the woman was brilliant," Metzger said. "I think her take on some things were so controversial. I really like to spark discussions."