Film Reviews

Film Review: Hannah Arendt and Crimes Against HumanityJournal of International Criminal Justice (Oxford U. Press), March 2014, Film Review: “Hannah Arendt and Crimes Against Humanity.” 

Oxford University Press Blog, 2014-15:

Film: The Artist and the Model

“One Second in the Life of an Artist”

The riveting film, The Artist and the Model, from Spain’s leading director, Fernando Truebo, focuses on a series of “one seconds” in the life of a sculptor, Marc Cross.

The film director has transferred himself into his protagonist, played brilliantly by Jean Rochefort, to explore, what serves as inspiration for an artist? “An idea” says the sculptor as he shares with his young model a sketch made by Rembrandt of a child’s first walking steps. “It is the tenderness of the sketch,“ the “one second” of an idea, that Marc Cross is searching for to unblock his aging loss of creativity. And it is the sculptor’s wife, played by beautiful Claudia Cardinale, who will find this “idea” for him. She will save him, help him create.

In one second, she sees a driftless girl in their town, sleeping on the floor at a doorstep. She knows nothing about this vagabond who has found her way to their small French village at the Pyrenees’ border with Spain. The only thing the wife knows is that this homeless, hungry girl, wrapped in a bulky, long, woolen coat, has the body that her husband would love to sculpt. She brings her home, shelters and feeds her, and teaches her how to “model.”

After weeks of sketches and small sculptures, in one second, by chance, the sculptor sees his model in a new position, resting. It is the position of her arm, the tilt of her head, her leaning down to reflect that gives him “his idea.” He sees in one second before him, a beautiful girl who is becoming a woman. She is thinking of the War, worrying about the people she has been transporting secretly during the night to the other side of the Pyrenees. “Jews, Resistance, anyone,” who wants to escape German-occupied France of 1943.

In that one second, the sculptor feels all her pain, her sensitivity, her attempts to do what is right. And it is with tenderness and love, that he sculpts his final masterpiece. When his work of art is coming to an end, so is the War. The girl leaves to model for another, perhaps for Matisse in Nice as she bikes to Marseille with a letter of introduction. At this time, the sculptor’s wife leaves him for a few days to care for her sick sister. It is not a coincidence that this is his moment, his one second, to create the most courageous act of all. And he does, with the finished sculpture of the woman in his garden  – surrounded by perfect light, birds chirping, and leaves from the trees in the background -giving him peace.

The Artist and the Model speaks to an age when all men and women search for the one second of Hope. The Cohen Media Group has brought to the screen another profound film that will inspire our coming together to discuss and share questions that we find hard to answer.

By Roberta Seret, Ph.D.


Film: Hannah Arendt

“Hannah Arendt and Crimes Against Humanity”

The powerful biographical film, Hannah Arendt, focuses on Arendt’s historical coverage of Adolf Eichmann’s trial in 1961 and the genocide of 6 million Jews. But sharing center stage is Arendt’s philosophical concept, what is thinking?

German director, Margarethe von Trotta, begins her riveting film with two silent scenes. The first depicts the Mossad’s abduction of Adolf Eichmann, the ex-Nazi chief of the Gestapo section for Jewish Affairs. Eichmann was in charge of deportation of Jews from all European countries to concentration camps.

After the war, Eichmann escapes Germany and travels to Italy with the help of the International Red Cross. In 1950, obtaining a visa from the Vatican, he boards a boat in Genoa to Buenos Aires where Peron helps him secure an Argentine passport, new identity and work. Years later, on May 11, 1960, under orders from President Ben Gurion of Israel, Mossad agents abduct him when he returns home from work as a foreman at the Mercedes Benz plant outside Buenos Aires.

The second opening scene follows with an appearance of brilliant, award-winning Barbara Sukova, playing Hannah Arendt. In her New York City apartment, Arendt is silent while lighting up a cigarette. Her first words are to her friend, Mary McCarthy, author of the novel, The Group. “I am not defending him,” says Arendt. At first, we think she refers to Eichmann who we saw in the previous scene, but no, she is discussing Mary’s ex-husband. We have to smile as two intellectual women discuss men and lovers and all the gossip women enjoy. Yet, there is tension building up from the beginning. We are waiting to hear more from these women. We wonder, what is under Hannah Arendt’s smoke screen?

Margarethe von Trotta’s and Pam Katz’s brilliant screen script is written in a literary style that covers a four-year “slice of life” in Hannah Arendt’s world. The director invites us into this world by introducing us to Arendt’s friends, her husband, colleagues, and students. As we listen to their conversations, we realize that we will bear witness not only to Eichmann’s trial, but to Hannah Arendt’s trial of words and thoughts. We get multiple points of view about the international controversy she has caused in her coverage of Eichmann’s trial. We are asked to listen and think as she formulates her political theories. We are also expected to make a judgment. And we will try to obey when Arendt discusses Eichmann, “obedience involves responsibility.”

In 1961, Arendt contacts Wally Shawn, editor-in-chief of the New Yorker magazine, to solicit herself to go to Israel and report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, ex-Nazi chief of BureaulV-B-4. We learn from witty Mr. Shawn that Hannah is the perfect candidate – German born, Jewish, former Zionist, celebrated Professor, and author of The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), where she analyzes the roots of Communism and Nazism. Mr. Shawn is thrilled that she agrees to cover the trial for his magazine.

When her husband, German poet, Heinrich Blucher, advises her, “Don’t go,” she replies, “I would hate to look back and think of the opportunity I missed.” Arendt has foresight. Or is it that she has already planted the seeds for her Philosophical legacy? In 1963, the New Yorker published five articles written by Arendt about Eichmann’s trial. Her subsequent work, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, evolved from her research of the trial and unleashed her famous and infamous theory about the Banality of Evil. While watching the film, the viewer wonders if Adolph Eichmann has become inspiration for Arendt’s political treatise.

According to Arendt, human evil originates from a failure not of goodness, but of thinking. She claims that Eichmann obeyed the law of his society- Fascism. He was a bureaucrat doing his duty. When the Chief Prosecutor at his trial, Gideon Hausner, asks him, “Would you obey to kill your father if Hitler and orders told you to?” Eichmann answers, “Yes.”

Arendt is overwhelmed that genocide was carried out by a mediocre man who was just doing his job.  She insists that obedience involves responsibility and for Eichmann, his responsibility was to obey. Arendt elucidates that Eichmann lacked moral independence and the ability to think for himself, and that constitutes his crime.

Director, von Trotta, continues her literary approach to cinema by using flashbacks that take us to the beginning of Arendt’s university days in Marburg, Germany. She is a Philosophy major, studying with Professor Martin Heidegger. He is the famous Father of Existentialism. Hannah Arendt becomes his ardent student and lover. In the first flashback, we see a young Arendt, at first shy and then assertive, as she approaches the famous Philosopher. “Please, teach me to think.” And he answers, “Thinking is a lonely business.” His smile asks her if she is strong enough for such a journey. “Learn not what to think, but how to think,” wrote Plato, and Arendt learns quickly. “Thinking is a conversation between me and myself,” she espouses.

Arendt learned to be an Existentialist. She proposed herself to become Heidegger’s private student just as she solicited herself to cover the Eichmann trial for the New Yorker. Every flashback in the film is weaved into a precise place, as if the director is Ariadne and at the center of the web is Heidegger and Arendt. From flashback to flashback, we witness the exertion Heidegger has on his student. As a father figure, Heidegger forms her; he teaches her the passion of thinking, a journey that lasts her entire life.

The film demands our arduous attention, for we do not want to lose a thread of the portrait before us. The director has skillfully put on screen Arendt in the act of thinking. Von Trotta has taken the intangible process of thinking and made it tangible by molding it into the shape of protagonist.

When Arendt studies Eichmann in his glass cell in the courtroom, she studies him obsessively as if she were a scientist staring through a microscope at a cancer cell on a glass slide. She is struck by what she sees in front of her – an ordinary man who is not intelligent, who is thoughtless, who does not want to think for himself. He is merely the instrument of a horrific society. She must have been thinking of what Heidegger taught her – we create ourselves. We define ourselves by our actions. Eichmann’s actions created him; his actions created crimes against Humanity.

Eichmann behind his glass cage becomes Arendt’s study. Watching him twitch, she wonders could this man’s ability to think for himself, have saved 6 million Jews? At his trial, he claims repetitively that he was only following orders. “I never did anything great or small, without obtaining in advance express instructions from Adolf Hitler or any of my superiors.”

Throughout the film, in the trial room, in the pressroom, in Arendt’s Riverside Drive apartment, we see her thinking and smoking. Her cigarette is a tangible symbol of the intangible act of her thinking. The cigarette becomes the reed for her thoughts. After several scenes, we the spectator, begin to think with Arendt. We are forced to reflect do we agree with Arendt that Eichmann was only a transmitter in the criminal machinery of the Nazis who just obeyed orders? Or do we side with Arendt’s critics that Eichmann was a fanatic criminal who knew right from wrong and his work had not been completed to kill as many Jews as possible? While watching this film, we are asked to judge.

The director shows us many sides of Arendt’s character: curious, courageous, brilliant, seductive, and wary, but above all, a Philosopher. Eichmann’s trial helped Arendt synthesize her philosophical legacy of the Banality of Evil. All men have within them the power to be Evil. Man’s absence of common sense, his absence of thinking, can result in barbarous acts. She concludes at the end of the film in a form of summation speech, “This inability to think created the possibility for many ordinary men to commit evil deeds on a gigantic scale, the like of which had never been seen before.”

And Eichmann, his summation defense? It is presented to us by Willem Sassen, Dutch Fascist and former member of the SS, who had a second career in Argentina as a journalist and Eichmann’s interviewer. In 1956 he asked Eichmann if he was sorry for what he had done as part of the Nazis’ Final Solution.

Eichmann responded, “Yes, I am sorry for one thing, and that is I was not hard enough, that I did not fight those damned interventionists enough, and now you see the result: the creation of the state of Israel and the re-emergence of the Jewish people there.”

The horrific acts of the Nazis speak for themselves. Director von Trotta in this masterpiece film has stimulated us to think again about Genocide and Crimes against Humanity, their place in history as well as in today’s world.

By Roberta Seret, Ph.D.