Interview with PAM KATZ – Hannah Arendt

by Simon on April 8, 2014 · 0 comments

After making two films with acclaimed German director Margarethe von Trotta, screenwriter Pam Katz was sitting on a bus in New York in 2003 when Trotta leaned in and whispered to her “I’m thinking about doing Hannah Arendt. What do you think?” Katz remembers her response. “I said fantastic, what a wonderful idea. And I was truly thrilled because Arendt is an endlessly fascinating person and no-one has ever solved her.” But Katz also admits that Trotta was surprised by her enthusiasm. She looked hard at Katz and laughed. “But Pam,” she said “she’s a thinker, what are we going to show?”

HannahArendtAnd so began a ten year project bringing to life a film story about a German-American political theorist, known for having an affair with philosopher Martin Heidigger, escaping first Nazi Germany and then occupied France, and writing The Origins of Totalitarianism – still regarded as one of the most powerful critiques of Nazism and Stalinism.

Yet it was none of these aspects of Arendt’s life that Von Trotta and Katz decided to use as their story. Katz’ instinct was that, even though Arendt had some visually dramatic episodes in her life, it was her thinking that set her apart.  “She made a lot of people angry with her writing,” says Katz, “and I knew we had to find something dramatic in that.”

Born into a secular Jewish family in Germany in 1906, Arendt was only eighteen when she met Martin Heidegger, one of the most popular and charismatic professors at Marburg University. They had both an illicit affair and a complex long-term friendship that survived Heidegger’s fall from grace as a Nazi sympathiser. He had joined the party in 1933, just as Arendt fled Germany for Paris after being interrogated by the Gestapo. In France she married communist Heinrich Blucher but was deported to Gurs Internment Camp when the Germans took control of the capital in 1940. Escaping once again, she made her way to Lisbon and then to America, where she lived for the rest of her life.

So, as they developed the film that became Hannah Arendt, why did Katz and Trotta choose to ignore such dramatic material as a clandestine affair, a grilling by the Gestapo, and two escapes from war-torn Europe.

“We could have picked some of these more dramatic moments,” admits Katz, “and a lot of people were very interested in her love affair with Heidegger. But we both realised very quickly that this was a totally reductive way of showing her character. There’s a great deal of titillating detail based on the fantasy that Hannah was a naive Jewish girl who fell in love with a Nazi, but the truth is that their relationship was a lot more complex and drawn out than that. We decided that to show that story the way people wanted to see it, would mean that it would no longer be true.”

Katz and Von Trotta spent three years researching Arendt, reading biographies, hundreds of letters, and interviewing people who knew her. There was clearly enough dramatic material for several films. “Yes, getting kicked out of Germany by the Nazis and escaping from prison camp is dramatic,” says Katz, “but by making a film that is a series of these ‘greatest hits’, it becomes just another bio-pic, a story that’s just ‘and then, and then’ from start to finish.”

Which brings our conversation to Adolph Eichmann – the SS Lieutenant-Colonel who managed the logistics of the Nazi’s Final Solution, and one of highest-ranking German officers to disappear at the end of the war. In April 1960, Mossad agents found and kidnapped Eichmann in Buenos Aires and smuggled him to Israel. Despite its illegality, the capture of such a high-ranking member of Hilter’s administration was a sensation and the Israelis prepared for a prosecution that would be followed worldwide by millions. Hannah Arendt – then working as a guest professor at Princeton University – was asked to cover the trial for The New Yorker magazine. She spent much of the next four months watching proceedings and thinking deeply about the accused, who appeared in the courtroom each day protected behind bulletproof glass. The trial was filmed by an American media company called Capital Cities Television (there is plenty of footage available on Youtube), and Eichmann, looking anxious and cornered, maintained from start to finish that he was merely doing his job. It took Arendt more than a year after Eichmann had been found guilty and executed to submit her thoughts to her patient employer. What she wrote changed much about the way the world perceived the Nazi regime, and cast Arendt back into exile.

Rather than paint Eichmann as an evil monster who deserved to die, Arendt described him as “terrifyingly normal”, a man who showed no trace of psychopathic behaviour or anti-Semitism, who – as a bureaucrat – could barely think for himself, and who was obeying the laws and rules of the state he found himself in. Using her most famous phrase, she describes him as a symbol of “the banality of evil.” Her ideas erupted into controversy.

For Von Trotta and Katz, it was this passage of Arendt’s life that came to define her. Katz explains: “This is a woman who is kicked out of Germany, imprisoned in France and who then came to America, a country she called Paradise – which she made her final home, and which she never wanted to leave. When this tremendous controversy over her coverage of the Eichmann trial happens – which she felt was generated by misunderstanding, petty competition and hatred – she was once more isolated. She was isolated from American colleagues and from old best friends who refused to speak to her. And in the midst of this she says – and it’s in the film – ‘I don’t want to pack my bags once more time.’

Katz feels that Arendt was a woman whose life was both defined and derailed by exile, with the Eichmann incident confirming this most powerfully. “It was through the confrontation with Eichmann that you come to the core of the woman in three really important ways, “ she explains. “Firstly, you see her attempt to understand the past and the psychology of the Nazis. Secondly you witness her seeking the truth no matter who she offends or how much truth she has to tell. But finally, on the important human level, you get to be with her as she experiences the most terrifying and perhaps final exile of her life.”

For Katz and Von Trotta, a film based on witnessing Arendt’s coverage of the Eichmann trial was where an audience would see both the emotional and intellectual heart of their character.  At a practical level, it also meant the film could be made with their limited budget – no expensive action sequences or complex historical production design was required with a story set mainly in Arendt’s house and that section of the Jerusalem courtroom where she watched television monitors and smoked endless cigarettes.

In 2012, as Katz was developing her final screenplay, some unexpected information about Eichmann emerged. With the 50th anniversary of the trial, all the footage from the Capital Cities Television coverage was made available for viewing. Von Trotta and Katz quickly travelled across Europe to watch as much of the many hundreds of hours of footage as possible. The emergence of the footage also confirmed the idea that they could not possibly hire an actor to play Eichmann, but would integrate the black and white film into their story.

Katz is very clear about the reasons for this. “So much of this story hinges on what you think of Hannah’s analysis of Eichmann. So it you have an actor play Eichmann, two awful things happen. First – no matter how good the actor is – you would start to remark about the performance rather than the character. But more than this – and something that was impossible for us to tolerate – people would have thought that the director directed the actor to get the performance that supported the conclusions Hannah came to. It would have squeezed the life out of the film. You have to see the man yourself and then decide what you think of Hannah Arendt’s views of him.”

Director Von Trotta has frequently remarked that she seeks to reveal – for all her films’ characters – the light that they leave in the world. For her, Arendt’s light still shines, and I am drawn to a particularly vivid passage from the book she finally published about the trial. It’s an insight that helps understand how bureaucracy can become a tool of evil. “The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.”

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