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Women and Others

Veronique Kolber/Zeitgeist Films

The German director Margarethe von Trotta has had such a long and fascinating career that, if there were justice in these matters—which idea is laughable—she would be treasured by more than who do so now. Beginning in 1975 she has made films that dealt with women, known and unknown, all of which were wonderfully persuasive. Sisters was thoroughly moving, Marianne and Juliane was both moving and politically striking, Rosa Luxemburg triumphed cinematically over a difficult subject. Now, with Pamela Katz again as her co-writer, she presents Hannah Arendt. Von Trotta says she wants to make films about women who think. She has done it before, and she has in some ways done it again.

Some of us will remember Arendt herself, the German-Jewish political philosopher who escaped from the Nazis. She arrived in New York in 1941. Distinguished in her profession, she soon got teaching posts and became eminent, the author of The Origins of Totalitarianism and The Human Condition. Von Trotta deftly shows us how Arendt—who, by the way, was virtually a chain-smoker with her husband—used her personal likes and dislikes to recreate a small Berlin society in her New York apartment, intellectuals who gathered to smoke and discuss subjects on which they knew they would not agree but wanted the fun of discussion.

Then came the kidnapping of Adolf Eichmann. The New Yorker engaged Arendt to cover the trial in Jerusalem for them. She went, and her report, published in five parts in the magazine and then in book form, stirred up as fierce an intellectual controversy as any of us have ever seen in New York.

Arendt maintained that her very presence at the trial enabled her to wipe away emotional touches and see the facts for what they were—principally, that Eichmann himself was a mere cog in the Nazi wheel, obeying orders, in shipping Jews to camps; and that Jewish leaders had sometimes helped Nazis (hoping to assist Jews). She coined the phrase “the banality of evil” about Eichmann. Her analysis infuriated thousands of Jews who assailed Arendt’s seeming defense of Eichmann, using every means—print, letters, meetings. Newspapers joined in the attack. A few respondents saw sense in Arendt’s reactions. Once again the main question of the Nuremberg trials was raised: After a war, can an enemy soldier or official be punished for obeying orders? (An English friend of mine, Giles Playfair, an expert in penology, published an article in The New Republic holding that Israel should show moral leadership by declining to hang Eichmann.) Footage of the actual trial is included in this film, with much of Eichmann himself. We can see that he is not fearful, he is resigned. He seems to think that the trial is merely a show before he is hanged.

Today at least we can see that there is small point in separating emotions from facts, as Arendt did. The immense horror of the Holocaust washed away any philosophical distinctions. Any sparing of Eichmann would have left millions of people feeling guilty of not fulfilling their duty. (An incidental bother: Before the war Arendt had been the student and lover of Martin Heidegger, who became a Nazi, and Arendt returned to him briefly after the war. This was presumably more a matter of Venus than politics; still it bothered many.) But Arendt’s strict adherence to her views resulted in her discharge from her teaching position, and the picture closes with her defiant parting address to her class.

Barbara Sukowa, the marvelous actress who was Rosa Luxemburg, is Arendt, and restates her belief in thought rather than emotional response. Sukowa, who is very appealing in some personal moments in the film, makes Arendt strong in a cool, logical, but humanly unrealistic position.

A question persists: Was it worthwhile to make a film about Arendt when the only dramatic point is this bygone Eichmann controversy? To try to render Arendt as a philosophic heroine? It’s a struggle. (Especially as there is now further information about Eichmann.) Well, perhaps von Trotta feels that every week brings a report from somewhere of some banal person who simply did what he was told to create horror and is now being held responsible. At least theoretically, the problem is still with us. And, in any case, von Trotta has filmed it characteristically well.

Israel again, much later. In recent years Israel’s racial conflicts have been a seedbed for films, some of them rather exploitative of the situation—ready-made Montague-Capulet conflicts for lovers. Here now is The Attack, which is much more complex and eventually much more disturbing.

Amin Jaafari is an Israeli Arab, as is his wife, Siham. He is an eminent surgeon, educated in Tel Aviv and practicing there. He and Siham have been married fifteen years and are still tenderly in love. The opening scene is their parting at a bus station as she leaves for a trip to Nablus, a parting that hurts. He then goes to a large meeting of Israeli surgeons where he is given an important award. (If it occurs to us to wonder why Siham left on a trip just before the award ceremony, we assume there must have been an urgent reason.)

Next day Amin is lunching at the hospital with friends when they hear a bomb go off, not far away. Terrorists. Soon victims are brought in—other than the seventeen killed. That night Amin is home, abed, when a call from the hospital requests him to come in. Reluctantly he obeys, and when he gets there, he finds it is not to treat a patient but to identify a corpse. It is his wife. He assumes that she happened to be in that restaurant when the suicide bomber came in, but the next day an Israeli detective presses him about his wife, dismissing the fact that Amin claims he knew her well. The detective says his own ex-wife was cheating on him for five years before he knew it.

Courtesy of Cohen Media Group
Reymonde Amsellem as Siham and Ali Suliman as Amin.

Details arise that make Amin investigate his wife’s trip to Nablus, and he finds that she never got there. Then he is given, from a relative, a farewell note from her that confirms her patriotic fervor. The walls are decked here with poster-size photos of his wife, who is now a revered martyr. Stricken, he determines to find in Nablus her mentors. He has trouble in finding and questioning people because they all think he is being tailed by Israeli police. But at last he is faced with the truth that his wife was filled with secret but firm motives to help recover the Arabs’ violated land. Presumably her superiors ordered her bomb attack just at the time that Amin was getting his Israeli award to show their defiance. We may wonder how he never suspected his wife’s fervor, but we can also believe that it has actually happened or could happen. In any case Amin, educated and successful in Israel, is left stunned.

So are we. It leaves us with the prospect that lasting peace between Arabs and Jews is virtually impossible, that no matter what benefits are given Israeli Arabs, there will always be Arabs who will hate Jews as thieves. Visibly Palestinians and Jews may sign pacts; always, this film says, there will be buried hatred and infirm peace.

Ali Suliman as Amin is no flaming talent, but he is ruggedly valid throughout. Directed by Ziad Doueiri, a Lebanese, and derived from a novel by Yasmina Khadra, an Algerian, this picture may have been intended as only an intelligent drama made out of current conditions—which it is—but it leaves us with a bleak prospect that may be darker than what was intended.

Postscript. A few weeks ago the “From the Stacks” column of The New Republic, after notifying me, resurrected a letter from John Updike in 1960 rebuking me for an adverse review I had written of Kim Novak. It may be small of me, but that letter still irks, possibly because I didn’t reply fully on paper or in person then. Permit it now. Mr. Updike’s airy notion that film actors become objets d’art like Byzantine icons is fractured by memories of thousands of good performances by film actors, including female stars. It is true that I have elements of drama criticism in my head: I was also a theater critic, and for seventeen years later taught the writing of drama criticism in the Yale School of Drama—while also giving film courses. Just one rejoinder to his charge that I have no film sense. During this time I also worked on a project with Marilyn Monroe, writing captions for a photo diary of her performance in a film, and when we finished, she thanked me for my insight.

There. After fifty-three years I’ve answered. If only Mr. Updike were around to respond.

Stanley Kauffmann is a movie critic for The New Republic.