MARGARETHE VON TROTTA
MARGARETHE VON TROTTA is an actor, one of the foremost German film directors, a member of the New German Cinema movement, and one of the most important feminist filmmakers in the world. She was born on February 21 1942 in Berlin, Germany. Before her life-changing discovery of cinema and especially that of nouvelle vague (new wave) while on a trip to Paris, Margarethe von Trotta studied business for two years and worked in an office:
"I came from Germany before the New Wave, so we had all these silly movies. Cinema for me was entertainment, but it was not art. When I came to Paris, I saw several films of Ingmar Bergman, and all of the sudden I understood what cinema could be. I saw the films of Alfred Hitchcock and the French Nouvelle Vague. I stood there and said, ‘that is what I’d like to do with my life".
Prior to that, however, Margarethe von Trotta tried many different things. Indeed, she studied fine art in Düsseldorf, Germany, moved to Munich where she then studied philology, but then again re-invented herself and started studying drama. In 1964 she gets her first important role in Dinkelsbühl, Germany. That same year she married the screenwriter Felice Laudadio with whom she has a son before getting divorced in 1970. From 1969 to 1970 she worked as an actress in Frankfurt at the Kleines Theater (Small Theater). She begins at this point to be solicited by young German directors such as Herbert Achternbusch, Rainhard Hauff, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. In fact, she will make four appearances in films of the latter.
From the early 1960s, after returning from Paris to Germany where she was exposed to the films of Ingmar Bergman, Margarethe von Trotta wanted to direct film but was prevented from doing so because, in her own words, “you couldn’t think that a woman could be a director”. Instead of pursuing directing then, she pursued acting, working closely with both Werner Fassbinder and Volker Schlöndorff, whom later became her husband from 1971 to 1991. After her divorce she moved first to Italy and then Paris, which is where she lives today.
Her first film, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, which she co-directed with Schlöndorff in 1975, narrates the story of a young woman who has a casual affair with a man she later discovers to be a terrorist. In 1977, she wrote and directed her first film, The Second Awakening of Christa Klages, which introduced many of the themes of female bonding as well as the uses and effects of violence that she would return to in her later films. Based on a true story, The Second Awakening of Christa Klages tells the story of a young woman who resorts to bank robbery in order to keep her kindergarten open.
Beginning in 1979, Margarethe von Trotta introduced a trilogy of films which cemented her reputation as one of the leading directors of the German New Wave. First, Sisters, or the Balance of Happiness, describes the life of two sisters deeply joined, both emotionally and intellectually, a symbiotic relationship that weighs heavily on them, even after one of them commits suicide. Second, in 1981 she followed this up with Marianne and Juliane (which won the Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival, presented to the first woman since Leni Reifenstahl’s Olympia in 1938). The film describes the fight in 1968 for changes in German society, as seen through the eyes of two sisters, one of whom is a committed reporter and the other, equally committed, a terrorist. And third, Margarethe von Trotta followed this film in 1986 with Rosa Luxemburg, an epic portrait of one of the leading figures of European socialism. Played with stunning grace by Barbara Sukowka, the character of Rosa Luxemburg is based primarily on the hero’s letters and diaries, and strikes a balance between the deeply personal and the exactingly political.
Despite being seen as a leading feminist director, Margarethe von Trotta herself rejects the description of her films as the product of “woman’s film making”, arguing that it confines one to a ghetto of sorts. Margarethe von Trotta believes that she should instead be seen as a filmmaker who is at once a woman, as well as a director who examines the interior of the feminine personal as well as the exterior of the political, and one who, despite being the most enduring female director of her time, stands equally with the male likes of Ingmar Bergman, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog and others.
Margarethe von Trotta has directed over a dozen films including: The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (Die Verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum oder: Wie Gewalt entstehen und wohin sie führen kann) (1975), Coup de Grâce (1976), Second Awakening of Christa Klages (Das Zweite Erwachen der Christa Klages) (1978), Schwestern oder die Balance des Glücks (1979), Marianne and Juliane (Die Bleierne Zeit) (1981), Heller Wahn (1983), Rosa Luxemburg (1986), Felix (1987), Love and Fear (Fürchten und Lieben) (1988), Paura e amore (1988), L'Africana/Die Rückkehr (1990), Il Lungo silenzio/Zeit des Zorns (1993), Das Versprechen (The Promise) (1995), Winterkind (TV, 1997), Mit fünfzig küssen Männer anders (TV, 1998), Dunkle Tage (TV, 1999), Jahrestage/Aus dem Leben von Gesine Cressphal (mini TV Series, 2000), Rosenstrasse (2003), Die Andere Frau (TV, 2004), Ich bin die Andere (2006), Vision - Aus dem Leben der Hildegard von Bingen (2009), Die Schwester (2010).
She has acted both TV and films, including: Blaubart (TV) 1984. Ręce do góry, Film, 1981. Bierkampf, Film, 1977. Der Fangschuß (Coup de grâce), Films, 1976. Die Atlantikschwimmer (The Atlantic Swimmer), Film, 1976. Verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum oder: Wie Gewalt entstehen und wohin sie führen kann, Die (The lost Honor of Katharina Blum), Film, 1975. “Les raisons de Georgina” in Nouvelles de Henry James (TV) 1975. “Une invitation à la chasse” in Histoires insolites (TV) 1974. Übernachtung in Tirol (TV) 1974. “Motiv Liebe” in Wochenende mit Waltraud (TV) 1974. Das Andechser Gefühl, Film, 1974. “Sonderbare Vorfälle im Hause von Professor S. (1973)” and “Tod eines Ladenbesitzers (1971)” and “Die kleine Schubelik (1970)” in Der Kommissar (3 TV episodes), 1970-1973. Desaster (TV) 1973. “Alkoholiker" in Der Fall von nebenan (TV) 1972. Strohfeuer, Film, 1972. Die Moral der Ruth Halbfass, Film, 1972. Warnung vor einer heiligen Nutte, Film, 1971. Paul Esbeck (TV) 1971. Der plötzliche Reichtum der armen Leute von Kombach (TV) 1971. Hauptbahnhof München (3 TV episodes) 1970. Der amerikanische Soldat, Film, 1970. Warum läuft Herr R. Amok? (Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?), Film, 1970. Drücker (TV) 1970. Götter der Pest (Gods of the Plague), Film, 1970. Baal. (TV) 1970. Brandstifter (TV) 1969. Spielst Du mit schrägen Vögeln (If You Play with Crazy Birds), Film, 1969. Tränen trocknet der Wind (Film) 1967. Das Vergnügen, anständig zu sein (TV) 1966.
Books have also been written about Margarethe von Trotto, including: German Culture Through Film: An Introduction to German Cinema by Robert C. Reimer and Reinhard Zachau and Margit Sinka (2005), Auf Dem Weg Zur Emanzipation: Studie Der Filme Von Margarethe Von Trotta Unter Frauenspezifischer Perspektive Das Zweite Erwachen Der Christa Klages by Hui Yang (2003), Margarethe von Trotta: Filmmaking as Liberation by Renate Hehr (2000) and Women & Film by Ann Kaplan (1990).
— The European Graduate School
Margarethe von Trotta
To get to Margarethe von Trotta’s apartment in Paris, you need to find your way to Boulevard de Clichy, then skip the tourist throngs around Pigalle by turning south to the quiet streets of the 9th arondissement. The street number she gave me over the phone the day before turned out to be wrong—or, more likely, I wrote it down incorrectly while holding up the line at the reception desk of the drab Montmartre hostel I was staying in. “Who are you looking for?” asked the concierge who emerged at the wooden gate of the building. “Oh, she’s next door.” Are you sure? “Madame, I should know. I live here.” At the next gate the code finally works, and I go through the courtyard and find the building. Von Trotta opens the door herself and takes my coat. She is not alone. “Meet my other son,” she says of a tall, affable man who comes out of the office (in fact her biographer and long-time collaborator, she later explains). He offers to bring us tea, then leaves us alone. We will only occasionally hear the sound of his typing in the other room.
It has been a hectic year for the director. Hannah Arendt, her latest film, is opening around the world, so she finds herself only rarely at home. The film is the latest addition to her forty-five-year-long cinematic career which began when she was an actress in what would later be known as the German New Wave, including starring in many films by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and her former husband, Volker Schlöndorff. Her first directorial credit was a collaboration with Schlöndorff, The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (1975), a film about an ideological witch hunt carried out by the right-wing tabloids. Her first independently written and directed feature was the The Second Awakening of Christina Klages (1978), with a very political yet goofy heroine at its center, who resorts to law-breaking in order to save her own modest piece of utopia. With films like Sisters, Or the Balance of Happiness (1979), Marianne and Juliane (1981), Sheer Madness (1983), Rosa Luxemburg (1986), and Vision (2009), she established a unique and recognizable style which involves a philosophy of filmmaking that is women-centered, politically conscious, and curious about other arts and historiography.
I have been watching her films since my late teens and if there is one thing that attracts me the most, it’s the air of freedom they have—they’re films in which women breathe. Perhaps von Trotta’s films offer a glimpse of a post-patriarchal cinema.
Just over seventy, she is deeply beautiful. I resist the urge to ask her about her hair, which is as spectacular now as it was in her role in Coup de Grâce—and instead I begin with Hannah Arendt, which opens in the US on May 29.
THE BELIEVER: I loved how you zoomed in on Arendt’s unwillingness to be the spokesperson for a collective. She wouldn’t do ethnicity, and she wouldn’t do nationalism. It was the toughest thing to refuse when she was covering the Eichmann trial. So you follow this incredible case of personal integrity… When you and co-writer Pam Katz amassed all the material, how did you decide to follow this particular thread—an individual being ostracized?
MARGARETHE VON TROTTA: In the beginning we thought we’d do a biopic. We would have started with her entering Heidegger’s seminar when she was eighteen and then go through her life. We’d have Heidegger more present than he is now—in the film he only appears in two flashbacks. But then we realized it would not work at all, we would have to jump from one episode to another and there’s a lot to tell. In 1933 she had to leave Germany for Prague, then went from Prague to Paris; when the Germans invaded France, they were treated like Nazis and put into an internment camp; then she fled from there to Marseille, from Marseille to Lisbon. In Lisbon, she was lucky to get a US visa for her and her husband. One love was Heidegger; then she had her first husband, whom she didn’t really love; they divorced in Paris, after which she met her second husband and so on… then finally came to America and stayed there. That would have been two hours already without going into her philosophical work at all.
We decided to take one period of her life and be there, precise and profound. And this episode with the Eichmann trial offered itself. It was probably the greatest controversy of her life. For me as a German filmmaker, this confrontation with our past was the most important moment. Through this event, you could really demonstrate her way of thinking and her way of being independent. She would not be put into an ideology or a philosophical school of thought. She was still very linked to Heidegger in her thinking, and to Kant and Plato, but she was forging her own philosophical path. There’s one phrase I like most in her writing: thinking without a banister. That is the film, summarized: think on your own.
BLVR: A lot of your films center on women who are very international and refuse the idea of a homeland. Am I right to assume it’s because you yourself are like that? A German filmmaker who chooses to live in Paris, and films in different countries…
MVT: I also lived in Rome for ten years. Perhaps that comes from my mother… She was born in Moscow, but was stateless. Her family lived under the Russian czars and when the Revolution happened and Communists took over, they had to leave because they were nobles. For me the “von” in von Trotta is just a name, but it was an aristocratic title then. They became poor and passport-less very quickly. My mother was stateless her entire life. When I was born, I received the stateless passport too. I became German only with my first marriage. So I know what it is to be stateless and to be a stranger in your surroundings. Even though I was born in Berlin, I was a stranger there.
This was all very boring because for every voyage I needed a visa—when I was eighteen, I came here to France from Düsseldorf to study and had to take the transition visa to cross Belgium and then get a visa for France. Visas were always expensive and I was an impoverished student. Once I had no money for the transition visa traveling from Paris to Düsseldorf and only had some change for the city tram ticket to get from the Düsseldorf train station to my mother’s place… and there was a very severe employee of the railway at the Belgian crossing who got me out of the train—“You have no transition visa, so out!” Middle of the night, dark border crossing station, there was nothing around… I had to wait until the morning there, then hitch-hike back to Paris.
BLVR: This was in the early sixties?
MVT: Yes. And the border guard went on and on about “You damn Germans, Nazis, what you did in the War…” But you see, I tried telling him, you are throwing me out because I am not German and have no German papers. He wouldn’t hear it.
But to go back to Hannah Arendt, she herself was stateless for a long time. We have her say this in the film too. I can understand how she felt being in America without speaking the language at the beginning. I wanted to put the two languages in the film: when they speak German among the German intellectuals, they’d get into these rowdy debates, and when she speaks in English, she sounds very different, and has a strong German accent. They all had impossibly strong accents back then. When you hear Thomas Mann speak English—he also was an émigré in America—he sounds terrible. They all came there from Europe having learned Greek and Latin and French because they often travelled to France or lived there part of the year, but never had any reason to study English. So they had to learn it very quickly as adults. Arendt, when she moved to the US, worked as au pair in order to learn English. Her husband refused to speak the language. As the war went on, they realized they were there to stay.
BLVR: It’s never stated in as many words by anybody in the film, but it is clear in that Arendt was pretty much the only woman in the company of political thinkers that she held.
MVT: Already when she was a student of Heidegger, there were very few women studying philosophy. She was one of two or three in his class.
BLVR: The fact of her unusual gender stands out in a couple of silent shots. There is a scene in which a gathering ends, people are leaving the room, and we see the cleaners—all women—coming in. Arendt, and the cleaners, are the only women to be seen. And in the final scene when you have her descend the stairs of a lecture hall. The place is packed, and completely silent, with the only sound heard the tick-tock-tick-tock of her high heels coming down.
MVT: Yes, the skirt suits were the order of the day, you had to be correct. And she was correct by choice, she didn’t like women wearing trousers. In this area, she was conservative. But that scene in the lecture hall… she is coming down into the arena. It is a coliseum that she is thrown into, and aggression awaits down below.
BLVR: OK, but your film actually makes theory and intellectual debate very sexy.
MVT: Entertaining too, I hope. Mary McCarthy’s wit also helps. They’re often together in the film.
II. BETWEEN WOMEN
BLVR: Speaking of women conversing, have you ever heard of the Bechdel Test? You’ve been practicing it for decades before it was actually named.
MVT: I have?
BLVR: To pass, a film has to have at least two women, these two need to have some sort of conversation at some point, and that conversation needs to be about something other than a man. Most films fail.
MVT: I like it! And let’s add, they can’t be talking about babies and cooking and such.
BLVR: Your films have been showing us that when you put two women together in a sustained conversation or action that is not revolving around some guy, something happens.
MVT: Yes. And I’ve noticed that men still get unhappy about this… women talking about something other than men, or love, or babies.
BLVR: But you also show some of the darker sides of closeness between two women. In Sisters, for example.
MVT: Sisters was also a way to show the two sides of myself—they are so different, and so far from each other, the one who is doing and fighting, and the other who is so sensitive and so offering . . . I had to put it in two characters. At the end, the main character is there with a notebook and she says, “I have to become both Anna and Maria in one person.”
BLVR: And you based Die bleierne Zeit (Marianne and Juliane) on the long conversations you had with one of the two sisters on whose life story the film is based.
MVT: Yes, Christiane. She became a friend. I met her at the funeral of her sister, Gudrun Ensslin, who was the so-called terrorist one. I added so many things to the story, but this basic difference between them was a fact. I lived in Germany in the fifties and there was really this bleierne Zeit—the leaden times. You understood unconsciously that there was something terrible in the past but nobody spoke about it. This grey cover over us… We felt there was something off but our parents didn’t tell us and we weren’t taught about it in school. That started only in the sixties. It was the same with the survivors in Israel. They didn’t speak with their children about the Holocaust—the victims didn’t speak, the perpetrators didn’t speak. Fifties was the silent time.
BLVR: So the Holocaust and the aftermath are important in the film, although not obviously at the forefront.
MVT: There’s a moment when the father of the two girls shows in his parish hall the film Night and Fog by Alain Resnais.
BLVR: What’s the second film that they’re watching as grown women?
MVT: Documentary images of the war in Vietnam. They are making the link between what they saw as young girls—the images of the Holocaust—and the images from Vietnam, with people running on the streets, being burned…
BLVR: So the character based on Gudrun saw her fight against militarism of her time as something that would resemble the anti-Nazi resistance in Germany in the thirties and forties?
BLVR: What is it that they did, Gudrun and her friends? You never show their actions. Other characters mention bombs being thrown, etc.
MVT: Yes, I didn’t want to make an action film. And I am following Christiane’s point of view, and she only saw her sister twice in this period when Gudrun was part of the terrorist group. Once they meet in a museum; second time, when Gudrun’s group come to her home late at night. We stay with her perspective all the way until and after Gudrun’s death. After the funeral of the real Gudrun in ’77 many people in Germany, especially on the Left, believed that they were murdered in prison. Few people believed that it was a suicide. Only perhaps ten years later we became aware that it could have been a suicide.
BLVR: You leave that indeterminate in the film.
MVT: I did the film in ’81 and we couldn’t know the truth then. Perhaps we will never know.
BLVR: What did the real Gudrun and her group do? Destruction of property, mainly?
MVT: They robbed banks. They also killed people.
BLVR: Where do you stand on violent action today? My impression was that the sixties and the seventies saw more serious and braver activists than we are today.
MVT: It was interesting to me to discover that there were many women in these groups that espoused violence. In larger society, women were far from equality—their talents and their will were not valued—and yet here we had these radical groups where women were accepted as equals. They could join in the fight. The anger they had in themselves, they could express and act on. And they were valued as thinking and acting human beings.
BLVR: And meanwhile in some other groups of the New Left, women still made coffee.
MVT: I have a scene in the film—really, I did it as Christiane told it to me, I could not have imagined a scene like this. Christiane said that the two men at one point in a meeting said to her, Make us coffee, and that she got up and did it. She was in the group, and she did the coffee. It’s a just a detail in the scene, but it’s there.
BLVR: But seriously, where do you stand on direct action? The only two groups I can think of today that employ direct action for the cause of equality for women are Femen, and La Barbe in France. Neither is violent, though. Do you think there is anything today worth doing something violent about?
MVT: I must say I was never in favor of violence, like Gudrun was. I am always in favor of expressing anger, though. I am always in favor of revolt, and can even understand some forms of property crime. But I am not in favor of killing—that for me is the line not to be crossed. I was a very serious leftist and feminist in the early seventies and Gudrun once asked me to come with her lawyer and visit her in prison. I didn’t go; I knew she wanted to convince me to continue her legacy—to become her. On the one hand I didn’t want to disappoint her, she was in prison and unhappy. On the other, I knew I couldn’t say yes. So I didn’t go.
BLVR: Wow. You would have been making very different films had you said yes.
MVT: I was a member of a group that helped political prisoners—not Gudrun, but other ones—and I went to prison visits once a month and corresponded and sent them things they needed… But her, no. I couldn’t. It’s strange, no.
Another group I was in had this terrible communist reductionist language, and that was for me always an obstacle. I read poetry, and was much more open to art… all of a sudden it was like a sin to still read poetry.
BLVR: Your film The Second Awakening of Christina Klages is also based on a true story—a woman whose daycare loses funding and she robs a bank to get some money so it could stay open.
MVT: The story is true, but I invented all the travels and the people she meets in the film. The woman who did it in real life plays a small role in the film, she is in the kindergarten scenes. It was after her prison years, so when she came out I put her in the film… after that she worked as the script girl for two or three of my films.
BLVR: I like that you give people jobs.
MVT: After that she did two films on her own as a director. But now I don’t know where she is, I’ve lost her on my way.[...]
— The Believer
Eichmann à Jérusalem, le procès des malentendus
Avec son film, «Hannah Arendt», la cinéaste Margarethe von Trotta relance le débat sur les positions de la philosophe au moment du procès Eichmann à Jérusalem, sur sa critique du rôle des «Judenräte» et sur son fameux concept de «banalité du mal»
Méprise alimentée par une désinvolture mal placée? Ou œuvre fondamentale pour comprendre le terrible XXe siècle? Cinquante ans après sa parution, ranimé par la diffusion du film de Margarethe von Trotta, Hannah Arendt, le reportage consacré par la philosophe au procès Eichmann, tenu à Jérusalem en avril et mai 1961, divise comme au premier jour. Et les lignes de fracture sont toujours les mêmes. L’appréciation contestée des Judenräte, ces conseils mis en place par les nazis pour organiser la vie des ghettos dans lesquels ils puisaient, convoi après convoi, les humains destinés à l’extermination. Et le concept de «banalité du mal» qui voit dans Eichmann non un fanatique démoniaque mais un fonctionnaire ordinaire ayant mené sa carrière sans jamais penser activement ce qu’elle l’amenait à faire.
La rencontre, dès le début, est explosive. Lorsqu’elle assiste, le 12 avril 1961, à l’ouverture du procès ouvert contre l’ Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann, ancien responsable des affaires juives et de l’émigration au Bureau central de sécurité du Reich, Hannah Arendt est une universitaire connue, notamment, pour ses travaux sur le totalitarisme. Formée en Allemagne, élève de Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl et Karl Jaspers, elle a aussi milité dans le mouvement sioniste, où elle s’est engagée pour un Etat binational, arabe et juif, en Palestine. Elle est là comme envoyée spéciale – et de luxe – du New Yorker. Elle n’y restera que relativement peu, vite appelée par d’autres activités et sans doute aussi agacée par le ton du procès.
Ce dernier joue un rôle tout particulier dans le processus d’affirmation du nouvel Etat hébreu. Identifié à Buenos Aires où il vit depuis dix ans dans une clandestinité très relative, Adolf Eichmann est enlevé le 11 mai 1960 et exfiltré. Par cet acte qui viole formellement les règles relatives à l’extradition, Israël affirme son droit supérieur à exercer, au nom du peuple juif, une justice qui piétine tant en Allemagne qu’en Amérique latine, où les complicités permettant à d’anciens criminels de vivre sans être inquiétés restent actives.
Il ne s’agit pas seulement de juger un des artisans centraux de la Shoah. Mais aussi de mettre cette dernière, pour la première fois, au centre du processus judiciaire. A Nuremberg, si les «crimes contre l’humanité» reprochés aux dignitaires nazis visaient avant tout l’extermination des juifs d’Europe, les débats portaient sur l’ensemble de leur entreprise de destruction. L’accusation, enfin, vise à la fois le crime contre l’humanité et le crime contre le peuple juif, catégorie juridique qui fonde le droit d’Israël à agir au nom de tous les juifs.
Malgré – ou en raison de – son compagnonnage avec le sionisme, Hannah Arendt juge ce processus d’un œil plus que critique. Si elle défend le droit d’Israël à juger Eichmann, elle conteste le choix de la notion de crime contre le peuple juif, une catégorie inutile, de nature à faire perdre de vue le sens du crime contre l’humanité: un acte certes dirigé contre un groupe donné mais qui attente, en réalité, à la capacité même des groupes humains à vivre ensemble, c’est-à-dire, littéralement, l’humanité elle-même. Elle s’élève également contre la stratégie du procureur Gideon Hausner de transformer le procès en mémorial des souffrances juives. Ce qu’il s’agit de juger, martèle-t-elle, c’est exclusivement la culpabilité d’Adolf Eichmann.
Un autre point, enfin, suscite sa colère: de façon répétée, le procureur demande aux survivants venus témoigner pourquoi ils n’ont pas résisté. Une question centrale dans un Etat vécu comme l’occasion enfin donnée aux juifs de cesser d’être des victimes sans défense. Mais déplacée, juge-t-elle, dans les circonstances où les témoins avaient été précipités. A leur totale impuissance, elle oppose toutefois le statut des Judenräte, dont elle juge la responsabilité importante. La controverse retiendra ce deuxième point, pas le premier. On lui reprochera d’avoir rendu les juifs responsables de leur propre persécution alors qu’elle a plutôt voulu dire, estime la philosophe Marie-Claire Caloz-Tschopp, que la responsabilité morale dépendait, entre autres, de la situation de chacun dans la hiérarchie sociale.
Ces critiques, et ce sera notamment ce que lui reproche son ami le philosophe Gerson Scholem, sont formulées sur un ton catégorique, enlevé, voire persifleur, alors que les souffrances évoquées au procès auraient justifié plus d’empathie. Il reproche à l’auteure de manquer d’amour pour le peuple juif, ce que d’autres traduiront en refus de sa propre judaïté, dénotant derrière ses critiques de Gideon Hauser une hostilité proprement allemande aux juifs de l’Est.
Pour beaucoup, la controverse, alimentée notamment par les communautés juives américaines, précède la lecture du livre qu’elle consacre au procès en 1963. Dans ce contexte, le concept de «banalité du mal» dont elle fera le sous-titre de la seconde édition (et qui disparaîtra par la suite des rééditions), est interprété comme une forme d’exculpation. En acceptant, peut-être un peu facilement, les protestations de l’accusé selon lesquelles il n’était pas antisémite, en en faisant un banal fonctionnaire occupé à faire carrière dans un système criminel, elle l’aurait en somme exempté de toute responsabilité morale, pire, réduit le massacre des juifs d’Europe à un événement trivial.
Accusations manifestement infondées: si elle tient effectivement à lire les actes d’Adolf Eichmann non comme une continuation de l’antisémitisme historique du monde chrétien mais comme la manifestation d’un phénomène entièrement moderne de déshumanisation des rapports sociaux par le totalitarisme, Hannah Arendt n’exculpe jamais l’ancien SS. Elle justifie au contraire sa condamnation à mort et s’élève avec vigueur contre tout concept de culpabilité ou d’innocence collectives. La question posée par le procès est au contraire, à ses yeux, de déterminer les conditions de la culpabilité – et donc, à l’inverse, de la résistance morale – dans un système où tous les repères moraux traditionnels ont été effacés. C’est, relève Marie-Claire Caloz-Tschopp, dans ce contexte qu’elle développe, de façon intuitive, puis plus argumentée 10 ans plus tard, dans son livre La Vie de l’esprit, une philosophie où la pensée comme action de liberté, de pluralité, de compréhension peut permettre d’éviter le mal politique extrême.
«Hannah Arendt procède souvent par paradoxe. Dans le reportage Eichmann à Jérusalem, elle met au jour le paradoxe selon lequel le mal extrême peut advenir banalement, simplement parce que ceux qui le font advenir ne pensent pas à ce qu’ils font, c’est-à-dire le font automatiquement, sans s’interroger sur les conséquences incalculables. Elle ne banalise pas la responsabilité humaine, mais affirme au contraire que même face à des formes de violence inouïes, l’activité de penser est vitale. C’est une boussole non seulement pour décrire les faits mais aussi pour dégager une position éthique de résistance.»
L’historiographie, depuis, a donné des arguments aux adversaires de la philosophe. Sur l’action des Judenräte comme sur l’ensemble du processus d’extermination mis en place par les nazis prévaut désormais une appréciation plus différenciée, qui n’exclut pas, dans certains cas, la critique des auxiliaires juifs des bourreaux mais qui fait apparaître bien rapide le jugement global selon lequel ces conseils ont, à partir de 1941, systématiquement aggravé le sort des populations dont ils avaient la charge. Quant à Adolf Eichmann lui-même, une biographie récente en brosse un portrait moins soumis que celui qu’il s’était efforcé de donner au procès.
Présent à plusieurs reprises sur le front de l’Est pendant la Shoah par balles, activement engagé en Hongrie vers la fin de la guerre pour mener à chef les dernières déportations malgré les hésitations de Himmler, l’Obersturmbannführer SS ne s’est pas contenté d’obéir. Il a adhéré à l’idée nazie selon laquelle les juifs constituaient, pour le peuple allemand, un danger à éliminer. Mais il n’est pas sûr que ce portrait invalide la thèse centrale de la philosophe: pris dans un processus criminel qu’il n’avait pas initié mais auquel il a adhéré, Adolf Eichmann s’est rendu immensément coupable, non par volonté de nuire mais par incapacité à penser réellement ses actes et leur portée. Un comportement dont, hélas, l’histoire continue de montrer jour après jour qu’il n’a rien d’exceptionnel.
— Le Temps
Lonely Thinking: Hannah Arendt on Film
In 1963, The New Yorker published five articles on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi chief of Bureau IV-B-4, a Gestapo division in charge of “Jewish Affairs.” Written by political thinker and Jewish activist Hannah Arendt, the articles and ensuing book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, unleashed what Irving Howe called a “civil war” among New York intellectuals. While some reviews cursed Arendt as a self-hating Jew and Nazi lover, the Jewish Daily Forward accusing her of “polemical vulgarity,” Robert Lowell termed her portrayal of Eichmann a “masterpiece,” and Bruno Bettelheim said it was the best protection against “dehumanizing totalitarianism.” Across the city, Arendt’s friends chose sides. When Dissent sponsored a meeting at the Hotel Diplomat, a crowd gathered to shout down Alfred Kazin and Raul Hilberg—then the world’s preeminent Holocaust scholar—for defending Arendt, while in The Partisan Review Lionel Abel opined that Eichmann “comes off so much better in [Arendt’s] book than do his victims.”
In the years since that fiery time, Eichmann in Jerusalem has remained something to condemn or defend rather than a book to be read and understood. I therefore had some fears when I heard that German director Margarethe von Trotta was making a film about Arendt’s coverage of the trial. But Hannah Arendt accomplishes something rare in any biopic and unheard of in a half century of critical hyperbole over all things Arendt: it actually brings Arendt’s work back into believable—and accessible—focus.
The movie opens with two wordless scenes. The first depicts the Mossad’s abduction of Eichmann. The second follows a silent Hannah Arendt as she lights, and then smokes, a cigarette. Around her, all is darkness, and for a full two minutes, we watch her smoke. Played with passionate intensity by Barbara Sukowa (who won a Lola, the German Oscar), Arendt ambles. She lies down. She inhales. But above all, we see the cigarette’s ash flare brilliantly in the dark. Hannah Arendt, we are to understand, is thinking.
Although Arendt’s work follows numerous byways, one theme is clear: in modern bureaucratic societies, human evil originates from a failure not of goodness but of thinking. When Arendt addresses Eichmann’s claims that he had “never acted from base motives,” and “never had any inclination to kill anybody … had never hated Jews,” she writes that they are “difficult, though not altogether impossible, to believe.” And yet, Arendt insists “Eichmann was not Iago and not Macbeth”—no villain doing evil out of villainy. Eichmann boasted of citizenly action, of conscientiously obeying the law and doing his duty—with excellence recognized by his superiors. On the stand, speaking in clichés and bureaucratic jargon, he went so far as to suggest he was a Zionist who “had saved hundreds of thousands of Jews.” Arendt was struck by both the immensity of Eichmann’s crimes and the ordinariness of the man.
She was astonished that perhaps the most egregious crime in history was administered not by panting sociopaths but by unthinking buffoons. This is what Arendt means by her famous and famously misunderstood dictum, “the banality of evil.” It is one thing to kill your aunt out of malice; crimes can be committed from barbarous motives. But the distance separating malicious murder from administrative genocide is immeasurable. Arendt’s “banality” suggests that the sacrifice of common-sense aversion to evil and authoritarian obedience cannot happen absent thoughtless people like Eichmann.
The Eichmann trial inspired the psychologist Stanley Milgram to famously conduct experiments in which residents of New Haven were asked to assist researchers in teaching students by administering what they thought were painful—and potentially lethal—electric shocks to students who gave wrong answers. The assistants largely did as they were instructed. Milgram concluded that most people will obey authority even when commands violate their deepest convictions; obedience, he argued, does not entail support.
Arendt did not share this view; she insisted that obedience involves responsibility. She was shocked that her critics assumed that thoughtful people would act as Eichmann had. She worried experiments like Milgram’s would normalize moral weakness. Indeed, she saw the angry reaction to her book—her critics’ insistence on seeing Eichmann as a monster—as proof that they feared that they too lacked the moral independence and the ability to think that would allow them to resist authority.
Struck by the danger of thoughtlessness, Arendt spent her life thinking about thinking. Could thinking, she asked, save us from the willingness of many, if not most, people to participate in bureaucratically regulated evil like the administrative extermination of six million Jews? Thinking, as Arendt imagines it, erects obstacles to oversimplifications, clichés, and conventions. Only thinking, Arendt argued, has the potential to remind us of our human dignity and free us to resist our servility. Such thinking, in Arendt’s view, cannot be taught: it can only be exemplified. We cannot learn thinking through catechism or study. We learn thinking only through experience, when we are inspired by those whose thinking enthralls us—when we encounter someone who stands apart from the crowd.
Von Trotta manages to make that apartness manifest in Hannah Arendt. In the pressroom, Arendt watches witness after witness testify to the horrors of the Holocaust, von Trotta using powerful footage from the real trial. Arendt is visually moved, eyes wide, chin set on her hands, transfixed in tearless empathy. After one witness faints—a Mr. Dinoor who was upset after he was asked to stop speaking about his own theories concerning astrology and crucifixion—Arendt leaves the courtroom and weaves through Israelis frozen, rapt to their radios, carried away by emotional stories that, as Arendt will charge, have nothing to do with the effort to do justice to the man on trial. What others call aloofness and coldness is here evidence of Arendt’s moral courage, her freedom from convention, and her intensely philosophical focus.
The importance of Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem is not to be found simply in the rightness or wrongness of her conclusions about Adolf Eichmann. Her book has power because of the original force of Arendt’s thinking. The book is a work of judgment in connection to a trial—the process by which we come to terms with one man’s evil deeds. And that focus on process—the German for trial is der Process—is the daring gambit of Hannah Arendt, co-written by von Trotta and Pam Katz: to engage head-on the impossible task of putting thinking onscreen.
In one flashback with her teacher and former lover Martin Heidegger, Heidegger tells Arendt, “thinking is a lonely business.” Outside of a few intimates, Arendt is alone throughout the film, accompanied by nothing and no one but her thoughts and her ever-present cigarette. There is a danger that Arendt’s cigarette could become an empty cipher, an obvious symbol. Instead, it lingers there, pulsing with Arendt’s breath, as she remains silent, listening. It is her silent intensity, throughout the film, that strikes the viewer, propels us to think with Arendt about what she is observing and its implications. The audience is thus transformed, moving from observing Arendt to thinking with her. And when Arendt at the end becomes a speaker, her deliberations done, the film climaxes in her speech to students at a small liberal arts college. The seven-minute long monologue, a sort of closing argument in this film’s long accumulation of evidence, is gripping. Arendt concludes: “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. The manifestation of the wind of thought is not knowledge but the ability to tell right from wrong, beautiful from ugly. And I hope that thinking gives people the strength to prevent catastrophes in these rare moments when the chips are down.” The full speech is likely the greatest articulation of the importance of thinking that will ever be presented in a film.
The thinking Arendt demands requires pride, a feeling of difference between oneself and others—even a kind of arrogance, an arrogance that von Trotta seizes on screen. The film honestly addresses this characteristic of Arendt and of thinking itself, and does not shirk from Arendt’s belief that a confidence in one’s own distinctiveness is necessary for character. Like Emerson’s, Arendt’s writing celebrates self-reliance. For her, our democratic desire for equality—to be the same as others and to not judge them—compounds the problem of thoughtlessness.
Of course, given the complexities of the factual record, there are fictions and oversights one can complain about in the film. Words written by Gershom Scholem are spoken by Kurt Blumenfeld. More problematic is the fact that not one Jewish character in the film defends Arendt, which gives the false impression that all Jewish intellectuals were blinded to her insights. Most startling, perhaps, is von Trotta’s re-imagining of the visit by Siegfried Moses, a friend of Arendt’s from her days working in the German Zionist Organization and a member of the Israeli government, who visited her in Switzerland to ask her to withhold publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem in Israel. This request is presented as a threatening ambush instead of the arranged meeting between friends that it was, suggesting a significantly more organized animus by the Israeli state than was the case.
The dramatic liberties von Trotta takes are easily forgivable considering her overall success in dramatizing the activity of thinking. To make a film about a thinker is a challenge; to do so in a way that is accessible and gripping is a triumph. Hannah Arendt herself might have been surprised to learn that after fifty years of deadening controversy, it is a film that promises to provoke the serious public debate she sought in publishing her book. Although originally entitled The Controversy, von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt would be more appropriately (if less commercially) entitled The Most Sophisticated Reading Yet of Arendt’s Philosophy to Reach the Mainstream—an astonishing thought indeed.
— The Paris Review
Margarethe von Trotta o la mirada femenina
"Quizás pueda encontrarse una nueva forma de erotismo femenino y creatividad en films que muestran cómo las mujeres miran y vuelven a mirar; este tipo de actitud narrativa puede ser más subversiva con respecto al código del film patriarcal que cualquier terrible mujer emancipada..." Fehervary en De Hitler a Hepburn: una discusión acerca de los films producidos y dirigidos por mujeres.
A finales de la década de los sesenta, Margarethe von Trotta (nacida en 1942) asomó su arrolladora personalidad por los entresijos del Séptimo Arte en calidad de eficaz actriz, participando en obras de Gustav Ehmk (Spielst du mit schrägen Vögeln, 1968), Klaus Lemke (Brandstifter, 1969) y Fassbinder (Dioses de la peste, 1969). En 1971 se casa con el director Volker Schlöndorff (con quien había trabajado en Baal, 1969), iniciando con él una fructífera colaboración que la lleva a ganar varios premios de interpretación gracias a Fuego de paja (1972), así como a ser primeramente su ayudante de dirección para luego convertirse en co-guionista de sus obras mayores e incluso compartir tareas de dirección (El honor perdido de Katharina Blum, 1975).
En 1977 dirige su primer film, El segundo despertar de Christa Klages (Das zweite Erwachen der Christa Klages), una película muy personal y sorprendente que intenta acercarse a la actualidad política alemana a través de la historia de tres mujeres: Christa Klages, quien con rabia impotente y un furioso idealismo atraca un banco para no cerrar la guardería donde trabaja; Ingrid Häkele, amiga íntima de Christa y esteticiénne que trabaja en casa, cuyo matrimonio está más definido por el consumismo que por los sentimientos; y Lena Seidlhofer, una empleada del banco atracado por Christa, que vive sola y sueña aún con la felicidad matrimonial y un piso nuevo. Tras cometer el robo, la protagonista se refugia en la casa de Ingrid por poco tiempo, iniciando poco después un viaje que la llevará hasta Portugal para al final volver a Alemania donde, tras unos días de espantosa soledad, se entrega a la policía. Lena, su posible y única delatora, afirmará en ese lugar con una enigmática sonrisa en los labios que Christa no ha cometido el atraco. La película de von Trotta acierta con toda brillantez a la hora de plasmar la evolución de sus mujeres, cómo dan un paso adelante en sus sueños y primitivos conceptos de felicidad para abrazar el camino de su propia identidad: "Ante la voz traumatizada de este país y su simultánea resignación, esta película es un trazo sensible de nuestras posibilidades, un informe concluyente de la necesidad de marchar adelante". Así, Christa es consciente de que pese a haber conseguido un equilibrio en su ansiada independencia, debe luchar día a día por mantenerla; Ingrid descubre a raíz de su encuentro con Christa deseos propios que sólo tienen que ver con ella misma y acaba separándose de su marido; finalmente Lena reconoce que sus deseos de matrimonio y estar al frente de una casa se revelan demasiado estrechos y se le hace imposible delatar a la ladrona. La imagen que da el film sobre la mujer como un ser capaz de no cumplir su papel social y romper así con las convenciones se asemeja bastante a la frase de Fassbinder en la que afirmaba que "las mujeres son más interesantes que los hombres, ya que les es más fácil salir de su rol".
Dos años más tarde, Margarethe von Trotta rodó Schwestern oder die Blance des Glücks, una parábola sobre la relación absorbente entre las hermanas Maria y Anna, donde la sobreprotección de la mayor conduce a la inseguridad y posterior suicidio de la menor. Tras este suceso, Miriam, joven vital amiga de Maria, sustituirá a la desaparecida Anna, pero cuando siente la opresión de aquélla (que llega a pagarle los estudios y a exigirle un constante rendimiento), romperá la relación que las une. La autora afirmó sobre esta simbólica película (multitud de espejos que recuerdan el "sello Fassbinder"; bosques primaverales, imágenes de castración...) que "no me ha interesado realmente la problemática entre las dos hermanas, sino que me ha motivado mostrar las dependencias entre dos personas, dependencias que son más fuertes a través del cuño de una infancia común, de la cual es difícil desprenderse". Por su parte, un crítico de Time vio en Schwestern "la revelación de una metáfora radical del estado moderno alemán: lo liberal como autoritario".
En 1981, Trotta filmará su película más famosa: Las hermanas alemanas (Die bleierne Zeit), una impresionante, sensible y realista descripción político-social que une la Alemania de los años cincuenta y la de mediados de los setenta: "Con este film intento una síntesis entre el primero (un inventario de la situación externa de la RFA) y el segundo (una reflexión sobre el interior de las personas y sus relaciones)". Julianne es una periodista que vive con su amigo Wolfgang, arquitecto. De repente, cambia su existencia cuando el marido de su hermana Marianne decide quitarse la vida y dejarles a su pequeño hijo Jan. Marianne es activista de la banda Baader-Meinhof (RAF) y se encuentra presa en una celda de aislamiento. Las dos mantendrán un contacto lleno de intuiciones y discusiones convulsas hasta que un día la terrorista aparece muerta: supuestamente se ha suicidado. Julianne, entonces, luchará por esclarecer las causas de la muerte de su hermana. Pese a lo que pueda parecer, Die bleierne Zeit no es un film sobre el terrorismo alemán, sino que se sustenta en un análisis doble utilizando muy sutilmente los flash-backs: el pasado de las hermanas (su infancia en los años cincuenta) y su presente veinticinco años después, unidos por el hermetismo de una sociedad cuyas realidades no han sido lo suficientemente examinadas ni explicadas (tradicionalismo religioso, terrorismo, represión). La secuencia final de la película resulta significativa: cuando Jan, el hijo de Marianne, rompe una foto de su madre, su tía Julianne se lo reprocha diciéndole que aquélla fue una mujer excepcional. Entonces él la mira fríamente, incrédulo y le espeta: "Debo saberlo todo sobre ella: ¡empieza!". Esta conclusión abre el film, lo alarga hacia el infinito y confirma la posibilidad de que el pasado proporciona los suficientes referentes como para entender el porvenir (que aquí representa el pequeño Jan). La directora obtuvo el León de Oro en el Festival de Venecia.
La obra cinematográfica de Margarethe von Trotta está poblada, pues, por mujeres que se caracterizan por tachar la sempiterna hegemonía masculina a través de la fórmula ideal de la independencia y la solidaridad.
Otras películas suyas son Locura de mujer (Heller Wahn, 1982), película de un feminismo nada militante donde Trotta continúa narrando con gran sensibilidad las determinaciones psicológicas que mueven las relaciones de sus personajes, y Rosa Luxemburgo (1985), un proyecto que la muerte arrebató a Fassbinder y que Trotta lleva a la pantalla con fuerza y convicción a pesar de algunos momentos donde la morosidad hace acto de presencia.
“Hannah Arendt” and the glorification of thinking
There’s a device in historical drama that I’m especially fond of, in which events of great import are traced to the small, daily actions from which they arose. (One great recent example is the HBO drama “Cinema Verite,” about the making of the 1973 TV series “An American Family.”) The disproportion stokes amazement at the way the world works and, overleaping the particulars of the story, giddily induces a general sense of wonder. That’s why I came to Margarethe von Trotta’s bio-pic “Hannah Arendt” (now playing at Film Forum) with great expectations. The story concerns the writing of, and controversy around, the reporter and philosopher Hannah Arendt’s book “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” about the trial of the Nazi war criminal, from its origin as a series of articles for this magazine to the defense that Arendt mounted on its behalf and the personal price that it extracted from her.
The movie, unfortunately, doesn’t do Arendt justice. Instead of giving small gestures and daily labors grand scope, “Hannah Arendt”—which stars Barbara Sukowa in the title role—diminishes them with hagiography and a tone-deaf attempt to depict quotidian life in a grand sentimental mode. The movie balances Arendt’s apparently very happy marriage to Heinrich Blücher (played by Axel Milberg) and her friendship with Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer) not with the turmoil of a regular life from which the extraordinary emerges but, rather, with the gleaming nobility of the life of the mind. Von Trotta preserves Arendt’s dignity to the point of dehumanization, depriving the protagonist of any trait that could render her ridiculous.
In one aspect, the movie is worse than ridiculous: its use of footage of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, as seen by Arendt on television screens in Israel. The mystery, ambiguity, vastness, complexity, and horror in the black-and-white images of that trial seem to escape not only Arendt (which I doubt was the intended dramatic effect) but von Trotta as well, making her simplistic, unquestioning representation of the story’s historical events all the more offensive.
A movie that depicts intellectuals isn’t necessarily intellectual. There’s more real cognition at work and on display in Shane Carruth’s “Upstream Color” and Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder”—neither of which depict people who make a living from intellectual pursuits—than in this movie, which comes off as a sort of soft-core philosophical porn. “Hannah Arendt” titillates the craving for the so-called intellectual life while actually offering little intellectual substance. A. O. Scott, in his review of the movie in the Times, writes that “the work of thinking is notoriously difficult to show” and praises the film for the way that it does so: “In this case, it looks a lot like smoking, with intervals of typing, pacing or staring at the ceiling from a daybed in the study.”
Actually, the work of thinking is easy, almost effortless, to show—it’s what almost every movie is made of. Here is what it looks like when a person thinks; here is what it looks like; here, too, and (thanks to Stanley Cavell) here; but also, here and here. Thinking is something that everyone does, like breathing. Some are particularly adept at it; others do it with difficulty or suffer impairment. The movie’s sanctimonious depiction of “thinking” as something greater than what the regular run of people do is one of the signs of its artistic failure.
And then there’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem.” Even without von Trotta’s film, the book would be a subject of discussion at the moment, thanks to Claude Lanzmann’s new film, “The Last of the Unjust,” which premièred last week at the Cannes Film Festival (I haven’t seen it yet). It is based on his 1975 interviews with Benjamin Murmelstein, who, as the last head of the Jewish Council in Theresienstadt, worked under Eichmann and put into practice the policies dictated for the camp, including the deportation of inmates to Auschwitz. After the war, he was harshly criticized by some Jewish leaders, who considered him a Nazi collaborator. Lanzmann has described his film (as in this recent interview with Annette Lévy-Willard, in Libération), as an attempt to “show these so-called Jewish collaborators weren’t collaborators. They never wanted to kill Jews, they didn’t share the Nazis’ ideology, they were powerless unfortuntes. We see clearly who the killers were.”
In discussing his own film, Lanzmann also criticizes Arendt’s book; he repudiates both her critique of the Jewish Councils and her book’s key idea, the “banality of evil.” If Eichmann was, as Arendt asserted, a bland and “thoughtless” functionary who organized deportations with no evil intent but, rather, just to follow orders, then his crime would be no greater than that of Jews who worked under his command and were merely following his orders.
Von Trotta’s movie gives Arendt the bombastic and impassioned last word on the “banality of evil.” Regarding the angry response that Arendt sparked, with “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” by accusing Jews of complicity in their own murder, von Trotta presents the author as correct in her claims, though unsympathetic and lacking compassion in making them. As von Trotta depicts it, Arendt’s fault is one of style and of tone, not of substance—the writer is presented as too frank, perhaps even too cold, but absolutely right.
In “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” Arendt insists that the book is a “trial report.” Yet, as Arendt admits and as von Trotta’s film shows, she only attended part of the trial in Jerusalem, and relied heavily on trial transcripts and other printed documents, and this distance shows in the book. Arendt makes the mistake of taking Eichmann at his word. She traces the implications of his statements, his rhetoric, and his turns of phrase, but she does so from the point of view of a philosopher, not of a journalist. That may be why she concludes that Eichmann is “banal” and that his deeds are the work of his “sheer thoughtlessness.” Von Trotta makes the same mistake as Arendt: she sets up “thinking” as a special category of activity, and distinguishes Arendt’s crowd of circumspect intellectuals from the run of faceless bureaucrats who do their jobs with no sense of their place in the world.[...]
— The New Yorker