It is disconcerting how banal "the banality of evil" has become. It goes to show that even a profound idea can be overused to the extent that it becomes part of intellectual slang.
Hopefully one day some less deserving candidates in today's jargonese like "bipolar disorder," or "narcissism" will elicit the same jaundiced responses as the term Hannah Arendt introduced in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil now does. Of course we can almost judge the strength of an idea by the reactions it creates. In as much as Hannah Arendt was the product of German philosophy, which included an early fling with her mentor Martin Heidegger, we should almost expect that an idea predicated on a certain similarity between opposites, between criminal and victim, would have provoked an exploration of its antithesis. Indeed may we venture to say that certain kinds of evil like certain kinds of genius defy explanation.
"It was sheer thoughtlessness that predisposed him to be one of the great criminals of the 20th century," Arendt is quoted about Eichmann in Margarethe von Trotta's Hannah Arendt, now playing at Film Forum, "He was simply unable to think."
Indeed thinking itself is the leitmotif of the film. We see Arendt (Barbara Sukowa) taking both lessons in thinking and love from Heidegger (Klaus Pohl) and we watch her ardently thinking throughout the movie--and usually with a cigarette in her mouth or hand. Hopefully Arendt won't increase cigarette sales to impressionable teenagers in the way that Goethe's Sufferings of Young Werther once led to a spate of suicides. Any movie about Arendt would be an enormously ambitious project, not only because film is usually not the province of philosophy, but because the filmmaker is really dealing with the history of ideas. Hannah Arendt attempts to portray ideas in the context of historical processes. It's a curiosity of the film which skirts the world of phenomenology that nothing seems particularly real. From a phenomenological point of view, was this intentional? The New Yorker offices replete with William Shawn (Nicholas Woodeson), the New School, a Manhattan apartment all look like stage sets. Remember The Man in the Glass Booth? Real footage from the Eichmann trial is used, but dramatic reactions it elicits from Sukowa are a mockery of something that's always hard to depict--tortured thought.
(Photograph: Barbara Sukowa as Hannah Arendt)
This was originally posted to The Screaming Pope, Francis Levy's blog of rants and reactions to contemporary politics, art and culture.