Archival Spaces 256
Hannah Arendt – the Movie (2012)
Downloaded 20 November 2020
There is a scene near the end of Margarete von Trotta’s masterful biopic, Hannah Arendt (2012), in which Prof. Arendt’s academic colleagues move away from her as she sits down in the faculty cafeteria, after in February 1962 she has published her controversial reportage, Eichmann in Jerusalem. The scene is fictional, but is a visual indication of just how Arendt herself became a pariah after the controversy around her New Yorker articles erupted, leading to what Irving Howe in 2013 called a “civil war” among New York intellectuals. Watching the scene, I immediately flashed back to Hugo Münsterberg, one of the first film theorists, who like Arendt was ostracized by his academic colleagues (Harvard), because of his unpopular pro-German views during World War I. Like Münsterberg, Arendt enjoyed popular fame far beyond academia, becoming mass media stars, publishing bestsellers. Most importantly, both were naturalized Americans of Prussian-German Jewish heritage, who carried with them the intellectual baggage of their upbringing, melding the logophilia of Judaism with the Prussian instance on the letter of the law, principles and duty.
Rather than present a biography of Hannah Arendt, von Trotta focuses on the period 1961-63, when Arendt travelled to Jerusalem to observe the Eichmann trial. Left out, are her childhood in Königsberg, East Prussia, studies in the late 1920s at university with Martin Heidegger (with whom she has a love affair), Edmund Husserl, and Karl Jaspers, her interment in the notorious Gurs French concentration camp (1940), her emigration to New York, and 30-year marriage to Heinrich Blücher.
The film opens with Eichmann’s dramatic abduction from Argentina by the Mossad, then cuts to Hannah Arendt lying on a couch in her darkened New York apartment on the upper West Side, smoking; the scene is repeated a several times, also ending the film. In this juxtaposition we get action and thought. Arendt believed in human thought, rejecting Heidegger’s insistence (in a flashback lecture) that thought does not lead to knowledge. Her central concern in the reportage is Eichmann’s ability to act without thought. The closing scene also implies a more emotional level, as Arendt contemplates with heavy heart the many friends she has lost.
As one friend after another have peeled off in the wake of her Eichmann work, she is unable to compromise her principles, once she formulates her working thesis about Eichmann, even as the film is structured to justify her actions and writing. Two of the most painful scenes of Arendt’s loss involve Kurt Blumenthal (who turns away from her on his death bed) and Hans Jonas, German-Jewish colleagues she had known for more than thirty years.
Actress Barbara Sukowa, who is remembered for her great role in R.W. Fassbinder’s Lola (1981) plays Arendt brilliantly, having previously given a Cannes-awarded performance in Margarete von Trotta’s Rosa Luxembourg (1986), about the doomed leader of the German Communist Party. Although Sukowa in no way physically resembles Arendt, she quietly reproduces Arendt’s intellectual rigor, her stringency, her uncompromising theoretical principles, even in the face of overwhelming public criticism. She is characterized at two different times as arrogant and unfeeling, a view that overlaps with the American view of Münsterberg and his Teutonic pedagogical dogmatism.
Arendt’s great accomplishment was that she secularized the public discourse around Nazi war criminals, which was still dominated by mythological terms, like, monsters (Hitler), devils (Goebbels), insane demons (Himmler), who had misled the German people, introducing instead the today widely accepted concept of the “banality of evil,” namely that Eichmann was an ordinary, even unremarkable German, a loyal bureaucrat who was only following orders and intentionally turned off his moral compass. Since the publication of Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (1996), we, of course, know that tens of thousands of Germans participated in the murder of the Jews.
Von Trotta’s film structures the scenes of the Eichmann trial, consisting both of original newsreel footage and staged scenes, to support Arendt’s thesis, showing Eichmann as cold-bloodedly refusing to take any responsibility for the fate of the humans he put on trains to the extermination camps. As Arendt notes in a lecture to her students, neither German Fascism, nor the system of anti-Semitism was on trial in Jerusalem, rather, Eichmann was being tried for his own actions, which could not be directly connected to crimes of murder. Unlike her anarchist leaning husband, Blücher, who believed there was no legal basis for the trial, Arendt did want to make Eichmann responsible for his actions, supporting his execution. But at the time, few people accepted the premise of “the banality of evil.” Almost half the film therefore visualizes the extremely negative public reaction to Arendt’s article by friends, colleagues, and neighbors: A Mossad agent she knew as a student in Berlin threatens her, an upstairs neighbor calls her a Nazi whore in a note passed on by the building’s doorman.
The bone of contention, as even the New Yorker editors recognized before publication, was that many believed Arendt was blaming Jewish leaders for cooperating with Eichmann and, therefore, to blame for their own destruction. In fact, Arendt argued that it was the very amorality of the Nazis, their unwillingness to think about their personal responsibility, rather than rampant anti-Semitism, which allowed for the total moral collapse of both the Nazis and their victims. According to Arendt, the leaders of the so-called Judenrate (Jewish councils) of necessity shared in the responsibility for keeping the trains running. Such a brutal but realistic theory was intolerable to living victims of the Holocaust, less than twenty years after the war. Indeed, Arendt could be criticized for failing to consider their emotional state as survivors. Many scholars also agree that she probably underestimated the virulent emotional and intellectual force of anti-Semitism. Kurt Blumenthal admonishes her for not “loving her people,” but she responds she never loved any people, Jewish or otherwise, but only friends. Ironically, it is those she is losing.
Hannah Arendt believed her own intellectual integrity had to be maintained at all costs, even if she was ostracized, even if uncomfortable truths hurt those around her. Like the Sukowa version of Rosa Luxembourg as imagined by von Trotta, Arendt here is seemingly willing to give up everything for her principles, and her right as a woman to express them; feminist icons in the making. Fulfiilling another feminist ideal, Arendt is also portrayed as a warm and loving spouse to Blücher, who had rescued her from Gurs. It was possibly arrogance and philosophical coldness in a man’s world of cuddly women that allowed her to become one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century.
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Archival Spaces 255
CINE SALON BEYOND with Leo Hurwitz’s Strange Victory (1948)
Downloaded 6 November 2020
Dartmouth’s Film and Media Studies Department recently sponsored a CINE SALON BEYOND (online) with host Bruce Posner and Tom Hurwitz, the award winning documentary filmmaker who is the son of Leo Hurwitz. The event included clips from Tom’s soon to be released Can You Bring It? (2020), Leo Hurwitz’s best known film, Native Land (1932) as well as Leo’s Hunger (1932) and Strange Victory (1949) in their entirety. The Salon also highlighted Tom Hurwitz’s new website, https://leohurwitz.com/, where twenty-four of Leo Hurwitz’s films can now be streamed, including the above titles, as well as Pie in the Sky (1934), The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936), The Heart of Spain (1937), The Museum and the Fury (1956), and his magnum opus, Dialogue with a Woman Departed (1980). While I have written about Hurwitz’s earlier work, I had not yet seen Strange Victory, which proved to be a revelation.
I first met Leo Hurwitz in late November 1981, when I attended the Leipzig International Documentary Film Festival, when the East German State Film Archive staged a retrospective, “American Social Documentary, 1930-1945,” recuperating progressive filmmaking. Only a handful of Americans attended the Festival that year, so I received a Thanksgiving dinner invitation from fellow Americans, Anne and Will Roberts, filmmakers from Athens, Ohio, held at Leipzig’s Auerbach’s Keller (memorialized in Goethe’s “Faust, Pt. I”). No turkey, only duck with dumplings and apple sauce, but we make due. Other guests included Leo Hurwitz and Leo Seltzer, two survivors from the Film and Photo League who were being feted in Leipzig. At 72, Leo Hurwitz was still full of piss and vinegar, at least as far as his politics were concerned. I spent much of the evening talking to Leo, who had cut sections of Native Land into his new film, Dialogue with a Woman Departed, which I thought was a wonderfully poetic and utterly romantic view of left-wing politics. Several months later, I saw the 225 minute film dedicated to Hurwitz’s second wife, Peggy Lawson, again at the Berlinale’s Forum of Young Cinema, where Leo discussed the film at length with West German students.
Tom Hurwitz opened the Zoom Salon with a brief biography of his dad, noting that Leo (born 1909) saw his first silent Hollywood films around 1915, and felt intuitively that they were more make believe that real, or as Tom put it, “Leo felt he had been hit over the head, leaving the cinema.” As a result, Hurwitz gravitated as a young man to left-wing politics, joining the Film and Photo League of the International Workers Relief (a Communist front organization), where he produced political newsreels with, among others, Leo Seltzer, Robert de Luca, Sam Brody, and C.O. Nelson. Their work acted as an antidote to the commercial newsreels of the major Hollywood studios, with titles like America Today (1932) and The World in Review (1933-34). Like these newsreels, Hunger (1932), is a compilation of suppressed commercial newsreel and Film and Photo League footage, documenting a huge march on Washington for unemployment insurance and immediate cash relief for America’s 12 million unemployed. As Tom noted, Leo Hurwitz was a big fan of Russian filmmakers V. Pudovkin, A. Dovzhenko, Joris Ivens and Soviet editing styles, and became extremely proficient at cutting together newsreel footage from disparate sources to create a unified narrative of class struggle.
Taking their lessons from Pudovkin’s theory, On Film Technique, Hurwitz wished to move beyond the journalism of the Film and Photo League to produce aesthetically engaging documentaries, founding Nykino and Frontier Films with Ralph Steiner, Willard Van Dyke, Michael Gordon, Irving Lerner, Sydney Meyers, and Ben Maddow. As Tom Huwritz noted, the first four-named left the film collective in 1937, due to ideological conflicts and the group’s closeness to the CPUSA, Van Dyke going on to produce the liberal-capitalist documentary, The City (1939), while Gordon went to Hollywood. Meanwhile, Hurwitz and Strand spent years working on Native Land, a daring experimental documentary with staged fictional scenes about the violent history of the labor movement that unfortunately went under, because America’s entrance into World War II heralded a moratorium on labor agitation in favor of the war effort. We restored the film at UCLA in 2011.
Made at the height of American anti-Communist hysteria, Strange Victory posited the theory that America had defeated Nazism in Europe after four years of war, but that fascist ideology was still alive and well in the United States, in particular the country’s racist Jim Crow laws and anti-Semitic housing restrictions. As the narrator asks: “If we won the war, why does it look like we lost?” or “Why are the ideas of the losers still alive in the land of the winner?” While the film’s first third compiles war footage, the latter sections visualizes e.g. the difficulties of African-American fighter pilots to get a job in the airline industry or any job other than menial cleaning work; racial segregation victimizes all minorities, including Jews: “We keep our yellow stars hidden in quotas.” An extended scene of babies of various ethnicities in a maternity ward makes the point that we are all equal at birth, but only then, because white privilege kicks in as soon as they leave the hospital. Like Native Land, Strange Victory is brilliantly edited with a sparse, poetic narration (that includes a female and a male voice), and staged scenes of everyday racism. The New York Daily News called the film Communist propaganda, leading to its suppression and Leo Hurwitz’s blacklisting.
According to Tom Hurwitz, blacklisting not only limited his father’s employment in subsequent years, but also caused the suppression of all his political work and his rightful place in film history as one of the 20th century’s foremost American documentarians. Milestone Films restored and released several of Hurwitz’s films in 2015, but hopefully, the new website will also contribute to his rehabilitation.
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