The subversive act of female judgment (Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt)

I am reading Slow Philosophy right now by Michelle Boulos Walker, and I am enjoying it very much. My epistemology teacher was Sandra Harding, and my favorite part of the Symposium centered on Diotima, so I’ve always thought women and philosophy go together, just as a person outside the discipline who reads it as an instructive pleasure. But having my learned my lesson about how much people haaaaaaaaaaaate women with judgments (even more than they haaaaaaaaaaaaate women with opinions), it’s finally dawned on me why philosophy is particularly hard terrain for women, though it’s no picnic anywhere in the academy. It just seems to be a different terrain philosophy than in STEM or elsewhere, with privileged maleness providing a common framework between all of them.

In the first or second paragraph of Slow Philosophy, Walker describes the first scene in Margarethe Von Trotta’s biopic, Hannah Arendt. This description boosts my affection for Hannah Arendt even more, which I didn’t actually think was possible:

In a film about the philosopher Hannah Arendt by the German director Magarethe von Trotta, Arendt is pictured lying on a sofa, smoking. Nothing appears to be happening. Arendt, it seems, is thinking. The length of the scene is unusual when compared to the contemporary mainstream cinema: a cinema characterized by ‘activity’ and ‘action’, narrowly defined. What is it about this image that unsettles? Time passes–and it does so slowly. In fact, temporality and its unique relation with thinking is a theme von Trotta weaves throughout the entire film.

Based on this description, I was sufficiently intrigued to rent the movie, which I recommend highly. The movie covers the period when Arendt goes to cover the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem and her subsequent series in the New Yorker, which becomes her most controversial work: Eichmann in Jerusalem: A report on the Banality of Evil. This is one of my favorite books of all time: I first read it one summer in high school, and I have returned to it many times since, and I love many of the responses to it, especially Eichmann Before Jerusalem by Bettina Stagnath.

The movie follows the witch hunt that followed the publication of the piece, and there are so many disappointing scenes, where she loses friends over her unwillingness to portray Eichmann as a monster or to turn a blind eye to the trial’s discussion of Judenrate in eastern European cities. (Arendt could never do that; for her, political evil wasn’t about individual choices; it was about interweaving of human weakness and structure/context. Where some saw her blaming Jews for having a hand in their own destruction, Arendt was trying to point out that they couldn’t do otherwise given the context of power that set the terms of human action.)

There are many things to criticize about Arendt’s choice here: putting the work in the New Yorker, which is basically TED-Talk level of thought for all the many fine things it publishes, meant an audience neither trained as philosophers nor necessarily familiar with her masterpiece, On Totalitarianism, that would would have enabled people to be able to read her Eichmann thinking in the context of Arendt’s thought. It also meant a shorter format, which meant that the time philosophers use explaining their terms and being careful with language had to give way to William Shawn and the New Yorker standard for readability.

It’s also not clear to me that public intellectualizing about the Holocaust right at that moment was an ethical or productive use of a scholarly platform. I’m not sure: I can argue both ways, particularly now that so many live with the consequences of rigid Zionism. Jews were trying to build Israel with daunting barriers as it was without prominent Jews like Arendt suggesting they make bad governing decisions (everybody does), and Israel had already taken much criticism for nabbing Eichmann the way they did. (Though, we should note, other than some tut-tutting, nobody really cared Mossad violated extradition policy given that a) Eichmann deserved everything he had coming to him and b) Argentina was wrong to refuse to cooperate in the first place.)

We can totally understand why people reeling with pain did not want to hear implied criticisms of Jewish conduct or excuse-making for Eichmann. Some things just can’t be intellectualized. Just like there is never really any justice for wrongs on the scale of genocide (this does not mean we don’t try; it means we try all the harder, where recovery lies in the effort), there are some things we may never really understand no matter how smart we are. Some Jews understandably wanted a triumphant narrative about Israel and this trial, and Arendt could never write that for them. That wasn’t her. (As it is, to me the trial was good and important, judiciously conducted with clarity and purpose, but it also was what trials always are after unforgivable wrongs: messy and painful, with victims suffering again in the relating of the events, and man who, as Arendt saw too clearly, seemed a mismatch in capability for the suffering he ultimately caused, because he was stripped of the power provided by the modern bureaucratic state the Nazis formulated to their ends.)

Nonetheless, the movie shows plenty of male philosophers pitching fits and writers using her public comeuppance to build their own status and public profile (including a great scene where Arendt’s friend, the novelist Mary McCarthy (played beautifully by Janet McTeer), stomps *some dick into the dirt* when she finds some boy philosophers badmouthing Arendt–no fracks given). What I wrote up there? The boy philosophers, for all their lofty training, didn’t get to that even that minor level of sophistication in critiquing Arendt. Instead, they just huffed about her “arrogance.” How dare she? There is the justified pain of Zionists struggling with what they thought was her betrayal and then the simple status-seeking among philosophers who simply weren’t Arendt’s equal–and who knew it–and who opportunistically used the former to try to build themselves by dragging her.

Richard Brody, film critic for the New Yorker, hated von Trotta’s film, calling it ridiculous and offensive….carrying with the tradition of histrionic male reactions to women and thinking. There’s only so much you can accomplish in any biopic; film is not text, and there are limits as to what you can do. There are problems with the film, certainly; by the end, some of her male colleagues are little more than cartoon villains, but how much space do you give to their outrage when it’s actually pretty simple? von Trotta gives deserved time and space to the anger, resentment, and disappointment of friends who believed in the Zionist project, and that strikes me as far more important to highlight. Anybody who can’t see the difference among people who are shouting at Arendt isn’t listening to what von Trotta presented.

Just because von Trotta doesn’t show Arendt strangling kittens hardly makes the film a hagiography, as Brody calls it. Von Trotta shows one Jewish intellectual after another at the beginning of the film treating Arendt with warmth, respect, and in some instances, loving care. These decent people, who have both her best interests and the best interests of Jews at heart ask her, warn her, and reason with her about why she needs to be careful with her writing about Eichmann–including her very devoted spouse. She doesn’t heed them. That’s hardly the stuff of sainthood, regardless of whether you think her desire to cover Eichmann came from a desire for even more public attention or her own insatiable desire to understand and help others understand. You don’t have to scratch every itch, and you don’t have to publish everything you figure out for yourself. It’s just that Brody claims to be interested in the stuff of every day life, he misses its subtleties, let alone how those play out for women who think and write. He dismisses the lecture hall scene as “bombastic”…never thinking that any woman in that position faces, every time she walks into a room, the male gaze and pressure to shut up, be pretty, be pleasing, boost up others’ thought, not your own, and that after all she had been through, she was upset.


No, dear, fold your hands on your lap. Speak softly. Make others feel better about themselves. Don’t raise your voice, dear. Speak sweetly. Appear less than you are. Be less than you are


Stop thinking. We think for you. Start doing…for other people. Always serve, always always always.

If white women like me and Arendt get this message, the crap that women of color get has to be on a different order of magnitude: Go nurture. Do for me. Lying down and thinking? How dare you? There is work for others you must do. They are owed. You are obligated. Blah blah blah…

Then there is the very large question: would anybody have treated a male philosopher the way they did Arendt if he had raised the same questions she did. And, of course, a male actor shouting in front of a classroom…never bombastic. Forceful.

The weak part of the film blows right by Brody, in his weak efforts to critique Arendt’s book and the films all at once: von Trotta insists on showing us flashbacks to Arendt’s affair with Heidegger. I think these are utterly unnecessary, and except for some puerile fascination people have with academic affairs, it’s the least interesting aspect of Arendt’s life and thought. I suppose von Trotta might be saying that Arendt’s fierce intelligence found validation and encouragement in Heidegger’s exhortations to think no matter what modern society would have her do. I doubt it’s that deep, though, and I don’t read Heidegger’s take thinking that way anyway.

Brody concludes that the film doesn’t do Arendt justice, but what film really would? Nothing does, save for reading the entire oeuvre. Then reading it again. And again.

Walker doesn’t point this out, but I have to: the movie ends the way it began, which I love sooooooooooooooo much. The final scene shows Arendt, played by German actress Barbara Sukowa, once more lying on the couch smoking. Thinking. Judging. That ending made me smile.

I’ve had my own struggles thinking about the controversies I’ve created on this blog and in my publishing, and I’ve processed them here on the blog. My desire to be liked and accepted conflicts with my desire to understand cities in all their facets. Watching this film, warts and all, and reading Walker and her extensive read of Helene LeDoeuf’s work, helped me clarify my own feelings and come to a conclusion about my own relationship to internet trolls and all those who wish I’d be quiet, to listen to the boys. That conclusion is:

Go to hell. I’m thinking.