15 June 2013

Hannah and Her Brethren

I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen so much smoking in a single film. Maybe it was about having returned from a recent trip to Bucharest, where smoking is everywhere, and still being shocked by its omnipresence, but this woman could barely utter three words without lighting up. Hardly the point of the movie, but I just wanted to put it out there. Oh, and did I mention yet again that I had recently been to Bucharest? ;-)

It had to have been a rather shrewd decision of the publisher of the New Yorker to choose to send a political theorist/philosopher to provide reflective coverage of a war crimes trial, instead of going with the obvious journalist approach. I suppose that is in the nature of the particular publication and the time…not news as quickly as you can get it, but more analysis of what the events in the world mean in a larger sense. I think this is probably something that we have lost, perhaps forever, in the immediacy of our means of communications. We still get opinions, but they seem to be the products of little reflection and even less thought.

It was fascinating to watch a group of German intellectuals in New York at the beginning of the sixties arguing about the significance of events and the meanings behind them. There are slight references to the political struggles of the time (the Nixon-Kennedy election), but so slight that it was clear that these lacked the weight of matters more in the forefront. The struggle between the intellectual and the emotional is interesting as well — the legal basis of kidnapping such a war criminal and trying him in a country that didn’t even exist at the time of the crimes, let alone have specific laws addressing the situation pitted against the horror of the holocaust and the need for justice of those who had managed to survive it.

I have never read Eichmann in Jerusalem, but I am sorely tempted to undertake that task now. If that is the measure of the success of the film, then it worked. The analysis that ended in her coining the term “the banality of evil” is brilliant (I’m sure she was waiting for my assessment of that) and worthy of consideration in the context of our own current governance issues. Hiding behind procedure as a means to avoid having to think and analyze seems even more widespread now.

I am particularly interested in the controversial part of the work that I hadn’t heard of in my previous peripheral awareness of it. She criticized the actions of some of the leadership of the Jewish community in Europe and how their actions or inactions may have led to more death — not a very popular analysis less than a generation after the end of the war, and probably no more popular now. I would like to wrap my head around that one, and the lessons it might afford to oppressed peoples today.

In the film, we see the strong negative reactions to that very short criticism: stacks of hate mail, lost friends, threatening colleagues. But we also see the steadfastness of the publisher and the loyalty of other friends to a brilliant woman applying a dispassionate analysis to a highly emotional subject. Very much worth seeing.

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