Apple sauce with your Arendt: the Eichmann Show

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The Eichmann Show is on BBC iplayer just now, with Martin Freeman and Anthony LaPaglia playing two Jewish TV producers who travel from the US to Jerusalem to film the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1962.

It’s definitely worth watching. LaPaglia is believable as a US victim of the blacklist, trying to make sense of Eichmann and the country in which he finds himself. There are other moments too: a scene with a cameraman forced to confront his own memories, which I thought was nicely done. As I’ll try to show, the filmmakers were engaging with big ideas. When people do that, you always want to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Overall, it doesn’t quite succeed though as a conventional drama – Freeman feels like he’s trying too hard not to be Bilbo Baggins, quite a lot of the plot (especially the first 15 minutes) comes over as utter contrivance, and at any moment when people doubt what they’re doing there is a survivor just super-conveniently on hand to convince the cast of their own righteousness.

All of that said, the writers had clearly read Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, and as this is one of the great books of the postwar world, it’s worth seeing the film through it, and thinking through how they use the medium of film to convey and simplify Arendt’s text.

Arendt had three main things to say about the trial. The first was that, as an anti-Zionist Jew, she was horrified by the nationalism of the prosecutor, Hausner, who tried to use the trial to prove that the world had been hostile to the Jews, had been continuously and consistently so, ever since the days of the Old Testament. So that what was on trial in 1962 was not Eichmann but (in Hasner’s words) “antisemitism. throughout history”. If it really was true, Arendt countered, that anti-Zewish racism had been at a continuous pitch for three thousand years, then what moral authority was there for picking our and prosecuting and executing Eichmann who was logically, just another antisemite, among millions, in a continuous history of equal and unbroken horror?

The film turns this critique into art by the device of just making Hasner’s opening speech very slow and boring, so that the film-makers suffer the prospect of their world-historic spectacle turning into a dud with its own audience. Now, this idea has compelling for an instant. Imagine: a Hollywood film about no-one watching Hollywood films… But the writers only hold this idea for a few seconds or so before rushing to the answer: that what rescued the trial, as a TV spectacle, was the compelling nature of the survivors’ testimony.

Reading Arendt today it is striking how radically unimpressed she was by the survivors’ testimony. She certainly gave examples of people who she thought spoke well and plainly and to the point. Of survivors who described the help they had received from non-jews. Of instances of rebellion. But what she describes is (as so often with memory) of people crowding around trauma to make themselves central. Of people abstracting from their circumstances. She is especially critical of one famous writer who, given a chance to address the world on what he experienced, instead speechified at inordinate length, then, when the judge begged him to answer the prosecutor’s questions, fainted and collapsed. The makers of the Eichmann show take this same incident, elevate it, make the witness appear heroic, then berate one of their own central characters for missing his fall, and wrongly – broodingly – focussing on the mute witness Eichmann.

Arendt’s book was subtitled The Banality of Evil, by which she was trying to convey, I suppose, several specific things: first that (on her reading of his evidence, which she accepted) Eichmann was not an ideological Nazi but someone who had joined the NSDAP late and been swept up by it, that he was a “normal person” (in her words) “neither feeble-minded nor indocrinated”, that knowing he would be responsible for Jewish affairs, he had picked up some Hebrew, learned to read Yiddish, read Zionist literature, and that the key quotes used by the prosecution to justify his execution were instances of him “bragging” and exaggerating the part he had played, which had not been to make the policy of killing, but to administer the movement of people for it.

The film takes this superficially simple idea “banality” and does to it exactly, I suppose, what Arendt complained the survivor’s testimony did wrong – ie. abstract it, ie. separate it from its strict historical context and treat it as some general concept, and misunderstand it.

In the film, Eichmann’s banality is mute: he neither speaks, not gestures, nor even really moves. He sits still and silent while LaPaglia yells at him to do something. His banality is turned into film as an inability to speak whereas, as I hope I’ve just shown, he was in the real-life trial, loqacious, determined to justify himself, speaking readily, even as he in fact taught his listeners nothing.

Finally, why was Arendt so insistent on Eichmann’s banality? As I’ve indicated, the only heroism she could imagine was the rejection of those putting themselves in the way of history, whether that meant the victims refused to be herded to their death, or the non-Jewish people in Poland helping them to escape. She had a very similar sense of refusal in relation to the state of Israel and the national myths on which that country was founding itself: antisemitism had not been a continuous feature of world history, Eichmann could not play the part the regime reserved to him, of the planner and instituter of the Holocaust. The introduction to the Penguin edition of her book is titled, ‘The Excommunication of Hannah Arendt’, to reflect the very considerable hostility with which it was received in the mainstream Jewish press. Her book was, in its awkwardness, an act of bravery.

Compared to this original, the Eichmann show means well – but falls someway short of the original.

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