This year’s Oscar for best foreign-language film went to Hungary’s Son of Saul. It’s a movie I didn’t see. I wish I had seen it, but—to be perfectly honest—it’s not something I’ve truly rushed to check out. There are only so many Holocaust movies my overloaded brain can handle. And the makers of Son of Saul have gone out of their way to emphasize that their work (which focuses on an Auschwitz resident forced to lead his fellow Jews to the gas chambers and then later dispose of their remains) is far tougher than any earlier Holocaust film. Clearly, Son of Saul is not a fairytale about survivors or rescuers. In contrast to Schindler’s List, it promises no inspirational message.
I thought about my failure to see Son of Saul while reading a colleague’s impressively researched and written biography of a woman who grappled with the fallout of those terrible years. Anne C. Heller published Hannah Arendt: A Life in Dark Times in 2015, as part of the Icons Series put out by Houghton Mifflin in conjunction with Amazon. (Other books in the series include short works by leading scholars on such wide-ranging cultural figures as Jesus, Stalin, Van Gogh, Alfred Hitchcock, J.D. Salinger, and St. Paul.) Though Amazon was in part responsible for creating the series, the Internet retail giant never quite got around to publicizing it, so these books languish—but are very much worth discovering. Heller’s brief volume introduced me to a woman of almost maddening complexity. I won’t be forgetting her anytime soon.
Hannah Arendt, born into a comfortable German Jewish family in 1906, was a rising young intellectual at the time that the Nazis came to power. In 1933 she managed to leave Germany for Paris, and later New York City. From that vantage point, she watched the decimation of European Jewry. What she saw led her to do heroic work with war refugees; as a political theorist, she also wrote perceptively (in The Origins of Totalitarianism) of the way Nazi concentration camps were used to systematically destroy the human spirit. But many of her longtime friends were dismayed when, reporting on the genocide trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1963, she at times seemed inclined to blame the Jewish people for their fate, rather than presenting Eichmann as the monster many felt him to be. Arendt’s reasoning was always rigorous, and she certainly never shied away from controversy. It was startling to learn that—late in life—she resumed a close and respectful friendship with Martin Heidegger, a noted German philosopher (and her early lover) who as rector of the University of Freiburg had helped promote the Nazi cause.
Heller’s book on Arendt makes clear that it’s unwise to expect human beings to behave with any degree of consistency. It’s in movies, rather than in real life, that good people and bad people are easily distinguished. When we watch Schindler’s List or Ida or Life is Beautiful or The Pianist, we know where our sympathies should lie. Still, that doesn’t mean that Holocaust films need to be simplistic. It strikes me as particularly important that such films be made in the countries where Nazi atrocities actually happened. One of the triumphs of Son of Saul is that the film fund of Hungary underwrote most of its $1.6 million budget, after Germany, France, and Israel turned down the filmmakers’ request for support. At the Oscars, Son of Saul’s director said it beautifully: “Even in the darkest hour of mankind, there might be a voice within us that allows us to remain human.”
Anne Heller will be only one of the many eminent biographers attending the 2016 conference of BIO, the Biographers International Organization, to be held June 3-5 in Richmond, Virginia. For further information contact BIO. The public is cordially invited.