Disaster Is My Muse: Hannah Arendt and the Art of Spiegelman at the Jewish Film Festival

Even in the age of terrorism, the terror of the last century's Holocaust has not lost its hold on the artistic imagination. As the victims of the Shoah are remembered at the United Nations and in synagogues worldwide, films continue to shed light on that darkest hour of the twentieth century. The Jewish Film Festival, an annual collaboration between the Film Society at Lincoln Center and the Jewish Museum, just ended with the New York premiere of Margarethe von Trotta's biopic of Hannah Arendt, the writer/philosopher/educator, an émigré who covered the Adolf Eichmann trial in Jerusalem for The New Yorker magazine, famously coining the phrase, "the banality of evil."

The movie focuses on Arendt's obsession with the philosophical problem of evil: she could not get over how ordinary Eichmann appeared to her, how unremarkable for all the deaths he caused in the name of the state. As a human being, and as portrayed by Barbara Sukowa, she was charming, sexy, a great host for cocktails among colleagues and friends, one of whom was writer Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer). And she was coldly intellectual, as one might expect from someone who fled the Nazis only to be detained by the French before escaping to the U.S. Most provocative in this movie is her stance on Jewish leaders: by not rising up against evil, by not refusing Nazi demands, she accuses them of complying with the Nazis in the Jews' horrific fate.

The film, one of a few with Holocaust-related themes, will have many people talking as Arendt's observations, rather than leading to conclusive answers, and will lead to inflammatory discourse on this history. Barbara Sukowa, Janet McTeer, and co-writer with von Trotta, Pamela Katz joined in for a Q&A. They spoke about the German auteur's continued return to the Holocaust topic (as she did in Rosenstrasse, for example), and the success of the film in Germany, a country ever eager to embrace its guilt. Hannah Arendt is scheduled to open in May at the Film Forum, and will screen before that, at the Athena Film Festival, a yearly event dedicated to showing films that demonstrate women's leadership, on February 8.


Declaring, "Disaster is my muse," the cartoonist, illustrator, creator of Maus, Art Spiegelman is the cheeky subject of a new documentary, The Art of Spiegelman. As he says of his Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus, although the Holocaust is the context, really it is a piece about a father and son. Spiegelman's process in the graphic memoir was to tape his father's journey through World War II, his train trip to concentration camp, his liberation. And so the young Spiegelman learned family history. He also created the famous black on black cover of The New Yorker magazine, in the week after 9/11, the towers as profound presence in absence.

But Spiegelman has other disastrous fish to fry: the suicide of his mother when he was a young teen. And something he does not say in this reticent documentary, about the loss of her notebooks, burnt by his father. Disaster may be his muse, but in this film by Clara Kuperberg and Joelle Oosterlinck, Art Spiegelman keeps it close to the vest.


A 17-minute short, Castaways, by Slawomir Grunberg and Tomasz Wisnieski, preceded the documentary about Art Spiegelman. In the Polish town of Lapy, elders still remember the trains carry doomed Jews to Treblinka slowing down and stopping there, to adjust tracks, how desperate parents threw their children out through windows, hoping the Poles would keep them alive. A valuable contribution to the history, Castaways is a poignant reminder of how incurably the Holocaust remains an open wound.

A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.