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The Whole Story

Yeshiva University students recently had the unique opportunity to view the 2012 biopic Hannah Arendt, followed by a question and answer session with the director/screenwriter Margarethe von Trotta and screenwriter Pam Katz. The film tells the story of the titular German-American Jewish philosopher and her publication in 1963 of Eichmann in Jerusalem, which describes Adolf Eichmann’s trial for war crimes committed over the course of the Holocaust. As described in the film, Arendt encountered blistering criticisms, often describing her as ill-informed and sensationalist, for the book’s portrayal of the failures of Jewish leaders leading up to the Holocaust. Arendt is depicted heroically for defending her work in the face of immense public pressure to recant.

During the subsequent session with the filmmakers, Stern College student Miriam Rubin asked a critical question: Arendt’s critics, though described in the film as philosophers, were portrayed as being unmotivated by genuine philosophical concerns, instead launching emotionally driven, illogical attacks against Arendt. But were there truly no other thinkers who objected to the philosopher’s novel concept of the banality of evil? Were there no historians who sincerely took exception to Arendt’s description of Holocaust-related events? And if there were, why were they not portrayed as intellectually serious as Arendt was? The filmmakers responded that indeed, there had been other, more substantive criticisms levied at Arendt, but they had taken the artistic license to depict only those conflicts which would illuminate the philosopher’s inner turmoil after her book’s publication.

Emerging from the event and reflecting on their response, I observed that von Trotta and Katz’s defenses of their filmmaking choices rang rather hollow. Hannah Arendt is a historical-biographical picture, one which can ill afford to play loose with historical events in order to make a more satisfying artistic point. Particularly when the personal life of the author in question is so tied up with the real-world events surrounding it, it becomes necessary to tell the whole story, not one consisting of half-truths and artistically satisfying retellings. While the film itself was excellent, its historical incompleteness and one-sided approach proved to be very troubling. 

The problems with Hannah Arendt are indicative of a larger issue which plagues too many areas of our world, YU being no exception; the disappearance of nuance and the lack of ability or willingness to be receptive to both sides of a story. The film’s chief failure lay in its black-and-white depiction of an issue that possessed more than its fair share of gray areas. Similarly, our world tends to draw stark lines of contrast far more than it allows for multidimensional ranges of ideas and opinions to take shape. We are far poorer for this polarization. Without a full understanding of the subtlety and depth of a different position, any claim is, by definition, more unidimensional and less compelling than it has the potential to be.

Another arena in which a lack of nuance manifests itself is satire. In praise of the medium, and in the spirit of nuance, it should be noted that satire is a remarkable way of highlighting important issues directly without constraints that may hamstring the effectiveness of other modes of communication. Additionally, good satire can be devastatingly funny. On the other hand, a weakness inherent in the genre is that in order to be incisive, satire comes down narrowly on one side of an issue. When readers click on an article in The Quipster, YU’s student satirical online publication, they do so not to read a detailed description of Yeshiva’s financial situation or a blow-by-blow account of the latest campus controversy, but a humorous article mocking, with varying degrees of gentleness, one of the sides of the issue du jour.

The same is true of The Onion, The Colbert Report, or any other satirical work. The genre has the potential to shape public opinion on any number of issues; we can only hope that readers and viewers of satirical media are discerning enough to do their own research and form intelligent, informed opinions of their own, taking in the full range of positions on a matter before defending one side over another. Satire has much to contribute to these understandings, but it may serve better as a springboard than as a landing strip.

Without going into specific details, I believe it is fair to assert that whenever a politically fraught issue becomes the subject of heavy discussion at Yeshiva, all parties involved could benefit from an increased attention to nuance and, at the very least, a recognition of the validity of a dissenting opinion. The student body at YU is truly outstanding in terms of erudition, knowledge, and passion, and these qualities clearly come to the forefront whenever issues of great communal or global import are the topics of conversation. Unfortunately, when involved in these conversations, I am often frustrated by the needless and harmful usage of polarized and generalized language. Furthermore, opposition, when acknowledged, is often portrayed as simplistic and dogmatic in its assertions, all too similar to the big-screen portrayal of Hannah Arendt’s critics. Very rarely do concepts of unanimity and universal agreement have a place in topics worthy of discussion.

Please, when we engage in the kinds of discussion that make our university unique, let us agree to leave “never” and “always” at the doorstep. Our conversation will only improve.