'Hannah Arendt' in Jerusalem

A new film about the author attempts to tackle the controversy surrounding her while appreciating some of her philosophy.

Hannah Arendt film set 521 (photo credit: Seth J. Frantzman)
Hannah Arendt film set 521
(photo credit: Seth J. Frantzman)
The cameras roll forward as silence settles on the set. A man dressed as an Israeli policeman stands next to the cold concrete that brackets the doorway of Beit Ha’am. Little by little a group of men and women dressed in the staid clothing of 1960s Israel file out, lighting up cigarettes. The faint scent of marijuana wafts through the air.
“Danke!” shouts someone in German, and the scene wraps up. It will be only one of many takes, as actors and extras are expected to perform the same simple action again and again.
Last Thursday the crew and cast of Hannah Arendt came to Jerusalem to shoot a scene about the Eichmann trial, which forms a central part of the movie. It is an Israeli-German-French-Luxemburg production that has producers from several countries, an international cast and a German director. The original trial took place in 1961 at Beit Ha’am, which is now part of the Gerard Behar Center on Bezalel Street in Jerusalem.
Margarethe von Trotta, the German director of the film, was overwhelmed by the fact that she could shoot at the original location. “This is my first time shooting in Israel. The experience shooting here today, the real shot – what was shocking [was that] I found out there is still this theater where the trial went on. I didn’t expect this. This is where Eichmann sat, the whole area here. I was interested that it was a theater here, not a court, because it was a sort of theater, not a trial.”
Von Trotta is a well-known director in cinema circles, having directed more than 23 films. One of her most recent films, and the one that garnered the most revenue was Rosenstrasse (2009), a feature film that tells the story of German women who were married to Jewish men and protested against their husbands’ arrest in February 1943.
Many of her films have been about strong women, such as Rosa Luxemburg, and she was attracted to the personage of Hannah Arendt. “She is one of the most intelligent women. I like people who are not one dimensional.You can really think with her. To make people think is a virtue we are lacking.”
Arendt was born in Germany in 1906 and was forced to flee, first to France and then to the US in 1941, due to the rise of Nazism. An ardent critic of Israel, an admirer of German culture and hater of totalitarianism, she authored Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil in 1963, based on her experience watching the trial in 1961.
David (Dudi) Zilber, the Israeli producer of the film, was also intrigued by the Arendt story. “She was an intellectual teaching in New York. She had been affected severely and wrote about totalitarianism. She arrived in the US in 1941 and was attracted to freedom and the way of life. The moment that Eichmann was caught, [she chose] to dive deep into this trial, so this is the film, and the controversy surrounding it.”
Zilber has produced many of Israel’s most well-known films, including Beaufort (2007) and Walk on Water (2004). However, in delving into Holocaust memory, he was tugging on what he calls a deep “obsession.”
“I was a museum curator for many years [Beit Hatfutsot]. I was happy working with the Holocaust memorial in New York. I was dealing with the subject matter of Hannah Arendt and trying to create a film when I heard there was already one in preparation. So I went to the producer [of the film] who is a friend and I said, ‘Do you have someone in Israel to be your partner?’ When he said no, I said, ‘So I am your partner.’ This film is about Hannah Arendt and the connection with the Eichmann trial and her perception because she wrote a book that was a gathering of her writings for the New Yorker. Her book created a big controversy in the Jewish world because she introduced this phenomenon of the ‘banality of evil.’ At the time this could not be accepted by Holocaust survivors to show that Eichmann was not an anti-Semite, but just an idiot.”
Zilber, who is a graduate of the Hebrew University and studied Jewish philosophy and Kabbala, wanted to make sure that the Israeli side was included in the film, not only in terms of actors and filming on location in Jerusalem, but also the perspective.
“It is not a very one-sided thing. It doesn’t take one side; it shows the complexity, it shows that she, as a brave intellectual, has her own point of view. She wrote about it. Most of the Jewish world was against her and almost excommunicated her. When you come out of the film, you are thoughtful. The aspect is to show that life is complex, it is to show that sometimes evil is beyond understanding. Evil is a lack of humanism, a lack of brains, and I don’t know if it reveals more,” says Zilber.
He believes the film, which is primarily in English with some German, will play an educational role for Israeli audiences, but he emphasizes that it does not take the Arendt view that the trial was a show staged by David Ben-Gurion.
“Ben-Gurion did it purposely as an educational tool, to show the people of the world what happened during the war. For the first time this was revealed. On the one hand it was a political trial, but it was not like in Russia, it was very different,” he says.
As a German, Von Trotta views her interest as deeper and more critical of Arendt. “There was some of the critique of Hannah [Arendt]. But I understand Ben- Gurion more than she did. I am German, not Jewish. I understood the use he wanted it to have because inour country, the younger people of my generation didn’t know anything, and our parents didn’t tell us [about the Holocaust]. In the 1950s when I was in school, we were not told [about it]… I don’t recall the trial, but I recall how we reacted against our parents’ generation – we reacted aggressively, we couldn’t understand [their role in the Holocaust]. In general we felt guilty; we were suffering in a way,” she says.
One issue the director and producers are not interested in is introducing Arendt’s views on Israeli society into the film. While they intend to use footage from the original trial, they are not revealing some of the controversial aspects of Arendt’s experience in Israel.
Arendt wrote to her friend Karl Jaspers that the Jewish judges were German, while the rest of the people she saw were not as “European.”
“[Gideon] Hausner [the prosecutor] is a typical Galician Jew, still European… Everything is organized by an Israeli police force, which gives me the creeps. They speak only Hebrew and look Arabic… Outside the courthouse doors is the Oriental mob, as if one were in Istanbul or some half-Asiatic country,” Arendt had written.
Zilber emphasizes that this side of Arendt – the anti-Arab and anti-Sephardi side – will not be presented in the film.
Pam Katz, the spunky New York-based writer who co-wrote the screenplay with Von Trotta, agrees with Zilber. “I would not say this puts her on a pedestal. We have an affectionate view, whatever you think of the ‘banality of evil.’ She changed the discussion on the Holocaust. We worked to do justice to her critics. Hans Jonas, for instance, is in the film. We wanted to show the other side faithfully.”
Rudiger Jordan, from the German production team, feels a personal connection as a German to the issues that Arendt explored. “To be part of this place, it has a lot of impact on me. She [Arendt] was a great woman and a great thinker. She brought a new aspect of historicism. One side still follows the idea that these [Nazis] were inhuman monsters, but others see that everyone can be like that.”
Another aspect of the film is the support it has received from the Jerusalem Municipality. Yoram Honig, director of the Jerusalem Film Fund, is proud that the city was able to provide support.
“It is important to get Jerusalem on the screen, to develop the film industry here. [Mayor] Nir Barkat is a great initiator. He loves film, and we are the first city to have a one-stop permit system. We are happy to have this film in Jerusalem. In the past, films used Malta or Morocco as Jerusalem for films. It helps the economy here.”
Later, after the takes have wrapped up, 100 extras mill around outside. Most of them are Russian speakers, and their Ashkenazi features and cultural background serves them well in a film about Israel in a period when most of the spectators at the trial would have been Eastern European Jews.