Saturday, 14 September 2013

"Think without bannisters" - 'Hannah Arendt' Director Margarethe von Trotta explains

Margarethe von Trotta
The light that comes from a person’s works enters directly into the world and remains after the
person dies. Whether it is large or small, transitory or enduring, depends upon the world and its
ways. Posterity will judge.
The light that comes from a person’s life—spoken words, gestures, friendships—survives only in
memories. If it is to enter into the world, it must find a new form. A story must be made from many
memories and stories.
—Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, author of the biography Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World

The light that Hannah Arendt’s work brought into the world still shines. And because her work is invoked
by an ever-increasing number of people, it becomes brighter every day. In a time when most felt obligated
to adhere to a specific ideology, Arendt was a shining example of someone who remained true to her
unique perspective on the world.

In 1983 I wanted to make a film about Rosa Luxemburg, because I was convinced that she was the most
important woman and thinker of the last century. I was eager to comprehend the woman behind this
fighter and revolutionary. But now, as we begin the 21st century, Arendt is an even more important figure.
Her foresight and wisdom are only just beginning to be fully understood and addressed. When she first
formulated the concept of the “banality of evil”—a term she coined in her report on the Eichmann trial—
she was sharply criticized and attacked as if she were an enemy of the Jewish people. Today, this
concept has become an essential component of any discussion that seeks to judge the crimes of the

And once again, I was interested in finding the woman behind this great and independent thinker. She
was born in Germany and died in New York. What brought her there?
As a Jew, she certainly hadn’t left Germany voluntarily and for this reason, her story raises a question I
have asked in many of my other films: how does a person behave in the face of historical and social
events that he or she cannot influence or change? Like many other Jews, Arendt could have been a
victim of National Socialism. But she was quick to recognize the danger and fled from Germany to Paris.
When France was invaded, she left from Marseilles and made her way through Spain and Portugal, and
finally to New York. As she fled, she thought bitterly of the many friends who had chosen to remain
behind and support the Nazis. She was deeply disappointed to see how quickly they adapted to the “new
era,” and described this phenomenon in an interview as: “Zu Hitler fiel ihnen was ein.” This means that in
order to justify their decision, “they made up ideas about Hitler.”

Exile was her “second awakening.” The first transformation in her life came when she studied philosophy
with Martin Heidegger. At that time, she was certain that her life’s vocation would be in the pursuit of pure
thought. But after her forced exile, she had no choice but to engage with the events of the real world. By
1960, when she finally felt settled in America, she was ready to take on one of the most tragic chapters of
the 20th century. She would look directly into the face of the man whose name evoked the murder of
millions of Jews: Adolf Eichmann.

Our film concentrates on the four turbulent years when the lives of Arendt and Eichmann crossed. This
focus offered the opportunity to tell a story that would lead to a profound understanding of both the
historical and highly emotional impact of this explosive confrontation. When the uncompromising and
unconventional thinker faced the submissive and dutiful bureaucrat, both Arendt and the discourse on the
Holocaust changed forever. In Eichmann, she saw a man whose fatal mixture of obedience and an
inability to think for himself (“Gedankenlosigkeit”) was what enabled him to transport millions of people to
the gas chambers.

Portraying Arendt almost exclusively during the period which begins with Eichmann’s capture and ends
shortly after the publication of her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, made it
possible to not only investigate her groundbreaking work, but also to reveal her character and personality.
We get to know her as a woman, as a lover—and most important to her character—as a friend. There are
only few flashbacks that take us back to the 1920s and then the 1950s—showing the youthful Hannah’s
passionate love affair with Martin Heidegger, as well as their reunion years after the war ended. She
never managed to let go of her connection to Heidegger, despite the fact that he joined the National
Socialist Party in 1933. These flashbacks are important to understanding Arendt’s past, but the film is
primarily concerned with her life and relationships in New York: with her husband Heinrich Blücher (who
she had met in exile in Paris); with her German and American friends, especially the author Mary
McCarthy; and with her oldest friend, the Jewish-German philosopher Hans Jonas.
This is a film that shows Arendt as a person caught between her thoughts and her emotions—one who
often has to disentangle her intellect from her feelings. We see her as a passionate thinker and professor;
as a woman capable of lifelong friendship—she was hailed as a woman who was a “genius at
friendship”—but also as a fighter who courageously defended her ideas and never shied away from any
confrontation. But her goal was always to understand. Her signature declaration, “I want to understand,” is
the phrase that best describes her.

And it is precisely in her quest to understand people and the world that made me feel overwhelmingly
drawn to her. Like Arendt, I never want to judge, but only to understand. In this film, for example, I want to
understand what Arendt thought about totalitarianism and the moral collapse in the last century; about
self-determination and freedom of choice; and finally, what she managed to illuminate about evil and
about love. And I hope that the audience will come to comprehend, just as I did, why it is important to
remember this great thinker.

The key to understanding her life is in Arendt’s wish to sustain what she called amor mundi, or the “love of
the world.” Although her forced exile caused her to experience both vulnerability and dire alienation, she
continued to believe in the power of the individual to withstand the cruel force of history. Her refusal to be
overwhelmed by despair and helplessness makes her, in my eyes, an extraordinary woman whose “light
still shines today”. A woman who can love and be loved. And a woman who can, as she put it, “think
without banisters.” That is to be an independent thinker.
In order to offer an authentic vision of Arendt as a human being, we ultimately had to move beyond the
mountain of written and archival audiovisual sources. Therefore, after a long period of traditional research,
we conducted extensive interviews with contemporaries who had been a part of Hannah Arendt’s life and
work for many years.

—Margarethe von Trotta