Hannah Arendt and the Rolling Stone

And we have come around, once more, to the image.

Or to be more precise, the misleading nature of the image.

Or to be more precise, our expectations about the image, in context with other images but more crucially, in or out of context with what we believe, even if we don’t know we believe it.

I’m talking, of course, about the cover of Rolling Stone, but I’m also talking about Adolf Eichmann. And if you don’t remember Adolf Eichmann, look him up.

Margarethe von Trotta’s new film Hannah Arendt, opening Friday, July 19th at Seattle’s Seven Gables, opens with a figure exiting a bus, then walking down a road, at night, presumably towards home. The figure is accosted, taken hostage, and there the dramatic representation of Adolf Eichmann ends. The figure, appropriately enough, is not credited at the end of the film. He remains a figure in darkness.

When Arendt, played with tough chin-out determination by Barbara Sukowa, reports on the Eichmann trial, we do not see the indistinct figure. We see Eichmann himself, culled from archival footage of that real-life trial. And from this springs Arendt’s famous “banality of evil” construction.

The cover of Rolling Stone, its critics decry, gives us evil as a glamour shot. If photo-manipulation turns out to be the case, the critics’ case for glamour shot makes more sense. It is, crucially, though, a case of expectations. We do not expect or welcome photo-manipulation in news media, cf. Time magazine’s O.J. cover. But, many people apparently do not expect Rolling Stone to be capable of serious news coverage. They expect de facto glamourizing of anyone on the cover and they’re outraged that it’s happened to this man.

Eichmann, of course, had no glory. Eichmann was a schlub. But we need reminding, at times, that evil comes in this package, comes in that package. Commenting on the Rolling Stone cover controversy, a learned friend of mine wrote in part, “It is useful to question the extent to which it arises from the way Tsarnaev doesn’t fit the stereotypical image of a terrorist: some bug-eyed, wild-bearded, raving guy with crazy hair in a turban.”

Naturally. Although I am, frankly, surprised and annoyed that we need reminding on such a point. Tsarnaev is supposedly hot (I don’t see it); well, have we completely forgotten Ted Bundy? Gary Gilmore? Richard Ramirez, often likened to Mick Jagger?

And the answer is yes, apparently we have.

And much the same goes for Eichmann’s banality.

If the bad news is that we need reminding on these points, the good news is that we can be reminded and should be. Just as I remarked on Compliance, another film based on a true story, another story which outraged viewers swore couldn’t have any relation to their truths, their realities, if need reminding about Stanley Milgram (whose chilling “obedience to authority” experiments took inspiration in part from Eichmann’s trial), then hopefully, we’ll get it.

I prefer to hold out hope.

The movie, shot by Caroline Champetier in rich color schemes alternating with the white-on-black Braille of the NYC skyline at night, reminds us of a few things we need reminding on. I had no idea that Arendt faced such opposition—from friends, some of whom broke with her, from colleagues, from her own husband. She tried to explain that to understand Eichmann was not to forgive him. She tried to explain that in a world where everyone was following orders, orders from above, the situation did not look like it looked from the outside.

And I was also not aware that the decision to try Eichmann in Jerusalem, itself, was controversial.

We can, and should, try to understand, without excusing, without forgiving. Explaining is not excusing. It is not forgiving.

And if we (including me) need reminders on these points, let’s have them.

Let’s question, or as academics say, “interrogate,” the image. But let us not surrender our higher facilities. Let us not become alternately shuffling and exciteable puppets.

I think we know what lies down that path.

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