Pras on WorldFilms: HANNAH ARENDT

imageA look at the life of philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt, who reported for The New Yorker on the war crimes trial of the Nazi Adolf Eichmann.

In the award-winning HANNAH ARENDT, the sublime Barbara Sukowa reteams with director Margarethe von Trotta (Vision, Rosa Luxemburg) for a brilliant new biopic of the influential German-Jewish philosopher and political theorist.
The film is centred on her coverage of the 1961 trial of Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann in Israel for The New Yorker, which she also published as a book. In her writings, she proposes that Eichmann is not an evil man, but an ignorant and stupid one instead, coining the phrase “the banality of evil”. The concept stirred controversy throughout the world upon its publication in 1963. She also implies that Jewish councils outside of Germany may be implicated in the extermination of Europe’s Jews, for not providing a stronger resistance to the Nazis. The film, by covering this small time in Arendt’s life, manages to capture her distinct characteristics, and provide an introduction to her philosophies.
hannah-arendtArendt’s reporting on the 1961 trial of ex-Nazi Adolf Eichmann in The New Yorker—controversial both for her portrayal of Eichmann and the Jewish councils—introduced her now-famous concept of the “Banality of Evil.” Using footage from the actual Eichmann trial and weaving a narrative that spans three countries, von Trotta beautifully turns the often invisible passion for thought into immersive, dramatic cinema.
An Official Selection at the Toronto International and New York Jewish Film Festivals, Hannah Arendt also co-stars Klaus Pohl as philosopher Martin Heidegger, Nicolas Woodeson as New Yorker editor William Shawn, and two-time Oscar Nominee Janet McTeer (Albert Nobbs) as novelist Mary McCarthy.

The banality of evil is examined in this solid and intelligent account of Arendt’s controversial conclusions on the trial of Adolf Eichmann. Deftly blending low-key drama with archival black-and-white footage of the Nazi’s cross-examination, director Margarethe von Trotta raises thorny questions about complicity and guilt, conclusions which caused outrage when first aired in the pages of the New Yorker. Award-winner Barbara Sukowa is excellently measured in the title role.
  “Hannah Arendt,”  has unleashed emotional commentary that mirrors the fierce debate Arendt herself ignited over half a century ago, when she covered the trial of the notorious war criminal Adolf Eichmann. One of the pre-eminent political thinkers of the 20th century, Arendt, who died in 1975 at the age of 69, was a Jew arrested by the German police in 1933, forced into exile and later imprisoned in an internment camp. She escaped and fled to the United States in 1941, where she wrote the seminal books “The Origins of Totalitarianism” and “The Human Condition.”
Adolf Eichmann was living among a fraternity of former Nazis in Argentina, before Israeli agents captured him and spirited him out of the country and to Israel for trial. 
When Arendt heard that Eichmann was to be put on trial, she knew she had to attend. It would be, she wrote, her last opportunity to see a major Nazi “in the flesh.” 
Adolf Eichmann in the Jerusalem courtroom where he was tried in 1961 for war crimes committed during World War II.
Eichmann’s writings include an unpublished memoir, “The Others Spoke, Now Will I Speak,” and an interview conducted over many months with a Nazi journalist and war criminal, Willem Sassen, which were not released until long after the trial. Eichmann’s justification of his actions to Sassen is considered more genuine than his testimony before judges in Jerusalem.
Writing in The New Yorker, she expressed shock that Eichmann was not a monster, but “terribly and terrifyingly normal.” Her reports for the magazine were compiled into a book, “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil,” published in 1963.
Arendt famously insisted that Eichmann “had no motives at all” and that he “never realized what he was doing.” That evil, Arendt argued, originates in the neediness of lonely, alienated bourgeois people who live lives so devoid of higher meaning that they give themselves fully to movements. It is the meaning Eichmann finds as part of the Nazi movement that leads him to do anything and sacrifice everything. Such joiners are not stupid; they are not robots. But they are thoughtless in the sense that they abandon their independence, their capacity to think for themselves, and instead commit themselves absolutely to the fictional truth of the movement.
Arendt’s insisted we see Eichmann as a terrifyingly normal “déclassé son of a solid middle-class family” who was radicalized by an idealistic anti-state movement.
But she did not mean that he wasn’t aware of the Holocaust or the Final Solution. She knew that once the Führer decided on physical liquidation, Eichmann embraced that decision. What she meant was that he acted thoughtlessly and dutifully, not as a robotic bureaucrat, but as part of a movement, as someone convinced that he was sacrificing an easy morality for a higher good.
Margaretha von Trotta’s film is not a documentary, but it incorporates archival footage of the trial. The director felt the footage was essential because it let the viewer encounter Eichmann directly.
Nearly every major literary and philosophical figure in New York chose sides in what the writer Irving Howe called a “civil war” among New York intellectuals — a war, he later predicted, that might “die down, simmer,” but will perennially “erupt again.”

This time, a new critical consensus is emerging, one that at first glimpse might seem to resolve the debates of a half century ago. This new consensus holds that Arendt was right in her general claim that many evildoers are normal people but was wrong about Eichmann in particular. 

Hannah Arendt in her Manhattan apartment, 1972.
 Hannah Arendt (1906–1975) was one of the most influential political philosophers of the twentieth century. Born into a German-Jewish family, she was forced to leave Germany in 1933 and lived in Paris for the next eight years, working for a number of Jewish refugee organisations. In 1941 she immigrated to the United States and soon became part of a lively intellectual circle in New York. She held a number of academic positions at various American universities until her death in 1975. She is best known for two works that had a major impact both within and outside the academic community. The first, The Origins of Totalitarianism, published in 1951, was a study of the Nazi and Stalinist regimes that generated a wide-ranging debate on the nature and historical antecedents of the totalitarian phenomenon. The second, The Human Condition, published in 1958, was an original philosophical study that investigated the fundamental categories of the vita activa (labor, work, action). In addition to these two important works, Arendt published a number of influential essays on topics such as the nature of revolution, freedom, authority, tradition and the modern age. At the time of her death in 1975, she had completed the first two volumes of her last major philosophical work, The Life of the Mind, which examined the three fundamental faculties of the vita contemplativa (thinking, willing, judging).

Arendt published the most controversial work of her career in 1963 with Eichmann in Jerusalem. Arendt covered Eichmann’s trial in Isreal as a correspondent for The New Yorker in 1960, when Isreali security forces had captured the S.S. lieutenant colonel responsible for the transportation of Jews to death camps. Eichmann in Jerusalem is the collection of revised articles from her coverage of the trial. According to her text, Eichmann had not had a sadistic will to do evil, but had been thoughtless; he had failed to think about what he was doing. Her concept of the banality of evil caused considerable friction between herself and the organized Jewish community, as her book was read by some as an elevation of Eichmann’s character and a questioning of Jewish innocence. Arendt was concerned that the ability to act according to conscience and rational thought was becoming obscured by partisanship and nationalism, combined with modernization. Most of her writing studies the sense of a shared world and the possibilities of freedom grounded therein.

Winner of Lola Award (German Oscar) for Best Actress for Barbara Sukowa and Silver Lola (2nd prize) for Best Film


Pras on World Films: LA RAFLE (“The Round-up”)

LA RAFLE is a fact-based drama about the 1942 Paris police roundup of 13,000 French  Jewish nationals and recent immigrants (many fleeing the Nazi regime) and their confinement in the Vel’ d’Hiv bicycle arena by French police acting under Nazi orders. The men, women, and children languished in a stadium prior to being deported to the Beaune-La-Rolande and then on to Auschwitz. The most laudable thing Bosch does, albeit with broad strokes and outsized characterizations, is intercut theLa Rafle became a huge box-office hit in France in the first half of 2010, and its audiences included thousands of young people who came to learn about a dark chapter in their country’s history.

Watch another great film on the same theme of the Vel D’Hive Roundup Incident: SARAH’S KEY (reviewed here).

On July 16 and 17, 1942, the French police, under the Vichy regime of France, on instructions from the German occupation authorities, arrested 13,152 Jews in preparation for their deportation, and crammed about 8000 of them (1,129 men, 2,916 women, and 4,115 children) into a multi-purpose stadium, the Vélodrome d’Hiver (Vel d’Hive), the winter velodrome, located not far from the Eiffel Tower.  They were held there for four days, with no food, one water faucet, no toilets, and no ventilation. The doors were locked and the windows screwed shut to prevent escape. Ultimately these Jews were deported to exterminated camps, where they were killed. Of the 13,152 Jews arrested, only about 100 survived. The incident is particularly embarrassing to France because of the number of people arrested (the largest of any French arrests during the Occupation) and the willingness and eagerness of French authorities to cooperate with the Germans, even going above and beyond their demands (the French arrested even children, even though the Germans had not asked for kids).

The stadium Vélodrome d’Hiver (Vel d’Hive) itself was demolished in 1959, and the space is now occupied by the Ministry of the Interior, the same government agency that carried out the arrests in 1942.

The screenplay for La Rafle was based on extensive research by the writer-director Roselyn Bosch and the Holocaust historian Serge Klarsfeld.

Children cry as they were being held in

France’s shameful effort to appease the Nazis is told mostly from the perspective of a young Jewish boy (Hugo Leverdez) named Jo, who is based on the accounts of a real-life survivor. Jo’s family ignores the warning signs until the dead-of-night gendarme raids, the planning of which by indifferent Vichy officials Boche occasionally shows with particularly wound-opening contempt.The family in focus are the Weismanns, with father Schmuel (Gad Elmaleh, wise-cracking but not infallible), mother Sura (Raphaëlle Agogué), sister Rachel (Rebecca Marder), and the baby of the family Jo (Hugo Leverdez), who pinches cigarettes from undernearth Nazi boots with best friend Simon (Oliver Cywie) and Simon’s little brother Nono (twins Mathieu and Romain Di Concerto). The site of the sickly yellow Magen David, the sixpoint star synonymous with the Jews, pinned to the clothing of every future victim is still enough to deliver chills.

In picturesque Montmarte, three children wearing a yellow star play in the streets, oblivious to the darkness spreading over Nazi-occupied France. Their parents do not seem too concerned either, somehow putting their trust in the Vichy Government. But beyond this view, much is going on. Hitler demands that the French government round up its Jews and put them on trains for the extermination camps in the East. The collaborators start to put the plan into effect and within a short time, 13,000 of Paris’s Jews, among them 4,000 children, will be rounded up and sent on a road with no return. The fateful date: July 16th, 1942, 68 years ago.

With a meticulously constructed script based on extensive research and first-hand accounts, writer/director Roselyne Bosch brings to the screen one of the most moving dramas of the year. Powered by fluid direction and a string of international stars- including Jean Reno (The Da Vinci Code, Leon: The Professional), Mélanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds, The Concert) and Gad Elmaleh (Priceless) – La Rafle became a huge box-office hit in France in the first half of 2010, and its audiences included thousands of young people who came to learn about a dark chapter in their country’s history.

Melanie Laurent (“Beginners”) gives an inspiring performance as a gentile nurse who goes along to treat the prisoners and their children on their journey to the death camps; Jean Reno, monument of French cinema, is just right as the overwhelmed Jewish doctor trying to single-handedly treat 13,000 doomed patients. The hero is plucky, real-life Jo Weissman (Hugo Leverdez), who makes a break for it after losing his mother (the beautiful Raphaëlle Agogué), lives to a ripe old age and helps make the viewer forget what really happened.

Historical context in the film is provided by actual footage representing Hitler at his Eagle’s Nest in Berchtesgaden or the Vichy prime minister Pierre Laval signing off on the deportations.


By Phillip Valys, Staff writer at South Florida Sun-Sentinel  |  Feb 24, 2012

Rosette Goldstein, 73, of Boca Raton, is a Holocaust survivor has firsthand experience of the French roundup on July 16, 1942, which is recounted in the French drama “La Rafle” opening Friday in area theaters. The photos behind her are of her parents and of herself as a child.

Rosette Goldstein was 5 when French police rounded up her father and shipped him via railroad to the Buchenwald death camp. Goldstein, now 73 and a resident of Boca Raton, was living in Paris when French police, in the early-morning hours of July 16, 1942, thundered into homes and yanked out 13,000 Jewish men, women and children. They would be detained for several days inside the city’s indoor velodrome, malnourished and teeming with disease, before being shipped to Auschwitz and Buchenwald.

The French government’s complicity during World War II in transporting its own Jewish citizens to Nazi camps is the subject of the French film “La Rafle,” which made its South Florida debut Feb. 17 but premieres tonight at Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale.

Goldstein is one of an estimated 6,000 Holocaust survivors residing in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, said Jack Karako, the director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s southeast office in Boca Raton.

“The film is absolute truth,” said Goldstein, who watched “La Rafle” (or “The Roundup”) this past November during a Boca Raton fundraiser for the Holocaust organization March of the Living. “They arrested all the Jews on the outskirts of Paris and brought them to the Velodrome d’Hiver. There were many French who were for the deportation of Jews. It was a bad time – very, very bad.

“The only ones who survived were my mother and myself,” Goldstein added.

Roselyne Bosch, the director of “La Rafle,” said in an email that the “wound is still infectious” for roundup survivors. “There was nothing a human heart could do in front of babies being torn away from their mothers’ arms,” said Bosch, a former investigative journalist, whose film was a 2010 hit in France. “Seventy years after the facts, those children, when they miraculously survived, are now in their 80s. The velodrome was never properly shown, nor the dreadful conditions of the detainees, so I decided to go after the truth.”

Neil Friedman, the president of Menemsha Films, said he chose South Florida for the U.S. theatrical release of “La Rafle” for the tri-county’s large population of Holocaust survivors and because the SNCF, the French national railroad that transported Jews to death camps, sought a state contract in 2010 to develop Florida’s high-speed rail system.

“South Florida’s a nexus,” Friedman said. “The idea of having the French railroad competing for a contract in the same state, where there is a large concentration of Holocaust survivors is a huge irony. The railroad got paid, per head and per kilometer, for the transport of these folks to their deaths. It’s a horrible concept.”

Georges Miliband, 81, of Delray Beach, lost his mother and all three of his younger sisters during the Vel d’Hiv roundup. He survived on dumb luck: The day before, his mother had scrounged up enough money to send Miliband, then 12, to a private-school gathering 25 miles outside Paris. French police rounded up his family and transported them to the velodrome, and later, by railroad cattle car, straight to the Auschwitz gas chambers. The private school’s headmistress hid Miliband – whose surname he said was “very French and not Jewish-sounding” – and a handful of other Jewish children until the Americans liberated Paris in 1945.

Miliband said the depictions of the velodrome in “La Rafle” triggered painful memories of his siblings. “For the rest of my life, whenever I see any movies relating for the Holocaust, when I see children, I think of my sisters, and I break down,” Miliband said with a sob. “My sisters – the children – had nothing to do with the war. I always had a big problem with seeing children getting killed.”

Charlotte Gal’s “un-Jewish” surname likewise saved her, her younger brother and her mother from the Vel d’Hiv roundup. Her father had been deported from France to Auschwitz a month earlier, so her mother suspected they were next. That morning, the thud of boot steps passed right by her apartment door, so when the complex finally got quiet, they split and escaped to the French and Italian Alps. For three years, the Italian Underground helped hide the trio until Allied Forces liberated the city of Rome.

“I’m an old lady now, but it never goes away, the memories. We were the lucky ones. My mother, my brother and I were never caught,” said Gal, now 76 and living in Boca. “I remember climbing to the roof of a Christian convent when the American fighter pilots came. They threw down packets of chewing gum, but none of us knew what chewing gum was. So we ate it and when the sweetness went away, we swallowed it whole.”

Gal has not seen the movie. She’s not sure she wants to.

For Goldstein, the film showed her the charity of French gentile families, but also the horrible, stark reminders of what she lost during the roundup. “There were some wonderful, helpful people portrayed in the film, just like the farmer family who saved my life at the peril of losing their own,” she said. “But there was no doubt I was frightened. You had to become an adult very fast in those times.”

NEW YORK TIMES | July 17, 1995


PARIS, July 16 — Barely two months after taking office, President Jacques Chirac today publicly recognized France’s responsibility for deporting thousands of Jews to Nazi death camps during the German occupation in World War II.

His statement put an end to decades of equivocations by successive French Governments about France’s wartime role.

“These dark hours forever sully our history and are an insult to our past and our traditions,” he said during ceremonies marking the 53d anniversary of the first mass arrests of Jews in Paris. “Yes, the criminal folly of the occupiers was seconded by the French, by the French state.”

By his outright denunciation of the role played by both French citizens and the French state in deporting some 76,000 French and foreign Jews, Mr. Chirac went well beyond the positions of his predecessors.

For the first 25 years after the war, French leaders held Nazi Germany solely responsible for the deportations. More recently, in an argument that Jewish groups saw as sophistry, they have blamed the collaborationist wartime government based in Vichy, absolving the French state.

Mr. Chirac said today that on July 16, 1942, French police helped to round up some 13,000 Jewish men, women and children. They were crammed into the Vel d’Hiv, an indoor cycling stadium, before being interned in the Paris suburb of Drancy and then deported to death camps.

Speaking at a memorial to these victims before a small crowd that included Jewish leaders as well as some Jewish death camp survivors, Mr. Chirac admitted France’s “collective error.”

“France, the homeland of the Enlightenment and of the rights of man, a land of welcome and asylum, on that day committed the irreparable,” Mr. Chirac said. “Breaking its word, it handed those who were under its protection over to their executioners.” Of the victims, he said, “we owe them an everlasting debt.”

His remarks were warmly welcomed by Jewish leaders here. Joseph Sitruk, the chief rabbi of Paris, said he was “fully satisfied” with the President’s statement. Jean Kahn, president of the European Jewish Congress, said Jews as well as all those who fought the Nazis “must have been delighted to hear these words.” Serge Klarsfeld, a French lawyer and renowned Nazi-hunter, said “this speech contained everything we hoped to hear one day.”

Yet, even now, it may not be easy for France to turn over these black pages of its history. Just this weekend, Mr. Klarsfeld raised another difficult issue. He said the French state confiscated money, property and valuables from Jews being deported from France and then failed to return these assets or pay reparations to surviving children of deportees.

“The families of the deported never got anything back,” he said in an interview with the newspaper Liberation. “The Fourth Republic simply took their property, jewelry and objects. They stole money from parents and then did not pay it back to the children.” He added that reparations paid by postwar Germany were also not passed to children of foreign Jews deported from France. It is now time, he said, for the French state to make amends.

Another unresolved matter is the case of Maurice Papon, a former Vichy official and former Gaullist minister who is now in his 80’s. He has been charged with crimes against humanity for his involvement in deportation of Jews from Bordeaux, but his trial has been repeatedly delayed for more than a decade, raising suspicions that French judicial authorities were trying to postpone it indefinitely.

Still, by seizing this opportunity to confront France’s wartime past so soon after taking office, Mr. Chirac has shown that he is eager not only to defuse an issue that has increasingly troubled France, but also to demonstrate that he does not share the often ambivalent views of his immediate predecessor, Francois Mitterrand.

Mr. Mitterrand did not deny the role of the Vichy Government, headed by Marshal Henri Philippe Petain, in sending tens of thousands of Jews to their deaths, but he always argued that Vichy — and not France or the French Republic — was to blame. “I will not apologize in the name of France,” he said only last September. “The Republic had nothing to do with this. I do not believe France is responsible.”

Last year, however, Mr. Mitterrand’s own past became part of the debate when he admitted that, before joining the French resistance in 1943, he worked as a bureaucrat for 18 months for the Vichy regime. Further, he refused to apologize for his postwar friendship with a former Vichy police official, Rene Bousquet.

Mr. Mitterrand said he had ended this relationship in the mid-1980’s after Mr. Bousquet was charged with crimes against humanity for organizing mass deportations of Jews. But many French were dismayed that Mr. Mitterrand should have associated with a man known to be an important figure in the Vichy regime. Mr. Bousquet was murdered by a deranged gunman in 1991, before he went on trial.

In contrast, Mr. Chirac, who is 64 years old, belongs to a postwar generation of French politicians. Further, as a lifelong Gaullist, the new French President has always identified with General de Gaulle and his battle against Vichy from exile in London. And today Mr. Chirac also spoke of “the France that was never at Vichy” and that was always “correct, generous, faithful to its traditions, to its spirit.”

Yet his main purpose was clearly to look at the ugly side of France’s wartime record. “To recognize the errors of the past and the errors committed by the state and not to hide the dark hours of our history, that is plainly the way to defend a vision of man, of his freedom and dignity,” he said.

President Jacques Chirac spoke yesterday at a memorial at the site of a Paris cycling stadium where 13,000 Jews were held on July 16, 1942, before being sent to Nazi death camps. In his remarks, he fully recognized the French state’s role in the deportations, ending decades of equivocation on the subject. (Associated Press)