08/02/2013 05:11 pm ET Updated Oct 02, 2013

Hannah Arendt: More Relevant Than Ever

We can just say from the beginning that Margarethe von Trotta's new film Hannah Arendt isn't for everyone. It's a film of ideas, of philosophical debates, something not so easy to put on the screen. It is slow, European slow. But for all of that, it is not an ivory tower, abstract exercise. At the heart of it, Hannah Arendt is a film about the most pressing and crucial social issues of our time.

The veteran European actress Barbara Sukowa plays Arendt, the German Jewish philosopher associated with Marxist activism and the Frankfurt School of social criticism. She was part of a generation that included Bertolt Brecht, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Walter Benjamin, and her husband, Heinrich Blücher. And, yes, the list is a lot of males. Men dominated the debates and the political landscape. People like Hannah Arendt and her friend Mary McCarthy were rare in those circles and had to more than hold their own. Indeed, out of the crucible of the 30s and 40s, these women practiced their own kind of feminism by becoming towering figures.

As is appropriate, the film has sparked again the debates about some of Arendt's main points -- especially those she raised in her articles for the New Yorker on the trial of one of the Nazi architects of the Holocaust, Adolf Eichmann. The context of this is the real beginning of a broad awareness of the Holocaust and the marking of it as a crucial ethical and political lesson of the century. Even by the late 1950s popular understanding of the Holocaust was hazy: the shared horror of World War II was in the foreground, and many survivors didn't want to talk about it. But the children coming of age in the 1950s and 1960s were gathering their own generational indictment of their parents for failing to see what was clearly there for them to see. And then the Eichmann trial began to shape a narrative that would challenge western societies to examine what would cause Germany, considered one of the most "advanced" of the "western civilizations," to massively participate in and engage such brutality.

The problem for the establishment with Arendt was that her version of the story did not fit the dominant narrative that was being rolled out. First, she pointed a finger squarely at the Judenrat, the Jewish Councils which were headed by Rabbis and other leading members of the Jewish communities. Her accusation was that they cooperated, even collaborated, with the Nazis. This didn't sit well with the powers that be, especially since such community leaders were the same ones who next favored the establishment of Israel and the expulsion of Palestinians from their historic homes to make way for the new state. To challenge them as misleaders then would call into question their leadership now.

How well Arendt's criticism was shouted down is evident in the fact that Holocaust museums, Holocaust school curriculums, and Holocaust histories make little or no mention of the role of the Judenrat in gathering census information, arranging deportations, and making a separate peace with the horror.

Second, Arendt made the disturbing observation that Eichmann was not the snarling devil one would have expected to see. He was a dedicated Nazi, an evil man to be sure, but really, most important, a joiner and a functionary. He was an everyday fellow and a mass murderer -- both. She coined the term the "banality of evil" to describe this kind of man, this kind of participation in genocide by someone who takes pride in simply going along with the dominant power and doing his job.

As Roger Berkowitz pointed out in an excellent piece in the New York Times , the term banality of evil has been tossed around and distorted and attacked for decades. But there is nothing in Arendt's observation that excuses or trivializes the horrors of the Nazi project. She does something more horrifying. She doesn't allow us to tuck the Holocaust away as some unique and insane moment of history carried out by monstrous beasts. It is, she suggests, something we are capable of -- it is the very heart of darkness in our own selves.

Arendt was not minimizing the evil. She was exploring a more radical evil, something that is not just selfish or emotional but the result of the simple act of making human beings superfluous as human beings. The very "mediocrity of the man" was a greater challenge than if he'd had horns and fangs. The court in Jerusalem wanted to try Eichmann for his deeds, but Arendt's challenge was to think of the system that produced him. The difficulty of her approach -- the discomfort and denial it elicits -- is that it implicates us all, then and now. People in power and people with privilege buy into the dominant, hegemonic thinking of their times, dehumanize and "other" people who are not "us."

Her analysis of the ways people bow down to authority, the cooperation that totalitarian regimes induce in their people, led to deep and thoughtful explorations of the problem. One of the most famous was the Stanley Milgram experiments at Harvard in which subjects applied what they thought were unbearable electric shocks to others because they were told to do so by authority figures. The exploration of how we become complicit in oppression, imperialism, and even genocide was a central philosophical and political struggle of the 1960s.

A modern day example of these kind of charges, or insinuations, against Arendt, can be seen in Richard Brody's review of the film in the New Yorker is a confused mess of straw men knocked down and faint praise lavished. Brody is disappointed with the film because it was not the film he wanted to see. His idea of a deep thinking film is the cheesy pseudo-intellectualism of Terrence Malick. But more important, he feels compelled to attack Margarethe von Trotta's film for the key points that were central to Hannah Arendt's thesis about the Holocaust -- the criticism of the Jewish Council leaders and the concept of the banality of evil.

The problem Arendt placed before us was to examine our own complicity with evil. It was front and center during the Vietnam War -- the existential question of responsibility and social ethics. How did US troops come to carry out so many atrocities, of the sort documented by Nick Turse ()? And besides the soldiers in the field, what responsibility should be assigned to the support troops off shore, to the higher up generals, to the academics whose research contributed to war materials, to the citizens who saw it happening and did nothing? Wasn't this our own banality of evil?

And on to today: How do we regard the pilot who sits in a cozy office and pilots drone missile strikes half way around the world? What about tech companies that devise ways to spy on citizens? And retail clothing stores that keep profits down at the expense of horrendous death by fire and collapse in Bangladesh?

Americans find it so much more convenient to tuck away the Nazis as deranged fiends who prowled the earth long ago and far away. We like our Holocaust stories clean and simple: virtuous victims and cartoon character villains. How much more unsettling is the perspective she asks us to consider. For this we can thank two remarkable women, Hannah Arendt and Margarethe von Trotta.