This outstanding 2012 film tells the story behind Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase “the banality of evil” while explaining the horrific ability of the modern bureaucratic state’s potential to convert human beings into abstractions and parts of a process.
The film also offers a glimpse, if to me a somewhat inconclusive one, into Arendt’s professional and personal relationship with Martin Heidegger, a still-influential, profound, puzzling philosopher who at least briefly affiliated himself with the Nazis.
Already an acclaimed political philosopher for her book The Origins of Totalitarianism (waiting on my shelf), Arendt secured a deal with the New Yorker to cover the trial of Nazi Lt. Col. Adolf Eichmann, considered a “one of the major organisers of the Holocaust.”
Part of Arendt’s series in the New Yorker suggests Eichmann believed he was merely playing a role in a process and merely following orders, so he did not believe he had a direct role in the killings of millions of Jews. This perspective strains friendships while setting Arendt on a quest to understand the nature of evil. (She did, however, believe a court in Jerusalem did the right thing by ordering Eichmann’s execution.)
But these historical and biographical details don’t carry the film. Barbara Sukowa‘s portrayal of Arendt lured me in and carried me through. Perhaps Sukowa’s most compelling moment is her portrayal of Arendt’s defense of her perspective in a packed college lecture hall. Here we find the phrase “crimes against humanity.”
The film is available for streaming on Netflix. If you don’t demand explosions, gun fights, bikinis, or slapstick in every movie you watch, play this film tonight.