The Banality of Evil on Screen

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Some philosophical ideas translate well onto screen. Some do not. A character may name drop a philosopher or embody certain concepts that will make philosophy students and professors snort with conceited glee knowing they are the only person in the room who understands the reference.

Nietzsche is usually invoked to signify a character’s despondence or alienation (and is also usually mispronounced), Baudrillard’s essays on Simulacra and Simulation were infamously bastardised by the Wachowski siblings in The Matrix, and Bertrand Russell made a cameo in an obscure Bollywood film called Aman from 1967 (look it up).

Probably the last place Hannah Arendt expected to see her ideas on totalitarianism and the banality of evil was on the silver screen, but her influential 1963 essay Eichamnn in Jerusalem is echoed in Wolfgang Peterson’s 1984 epic submarine flick Das Boot. Unlike other on-screen philosophy, this is no mistranslation. Das Boot is an apt embodiment of her commentary on the popularity of Nazism and our conception of evil.

Probably the last place Hannah Arendt expected to see her ideas on totalitarianism and the banality of evil was on the silver screen

Clocking in at nearly four hours long, Das Boot is an arduous uncompromising nosedive into the life of Nazi submariners on a U-boat in 1941. By the end of the film you will be left, like the crew of the eponymous U-boat, gasping for oxygen with its grounded camerawork drawing viewers right into the heart of the action.

It is a unique film given that when on film Nazis tend to be either spewing crimson blood riddled with bullet holes or at the end of an Allied soldier’s Herculean sized fist only to then be riddled with the same bullet holes. Of course, this comes as no surprise given that the majority of historical war films are churned through the Hollywood culture machine. That and nobody likes Nazis anyway. Das Boot naturally stands out in that it is neither churned out from Hollywood nor portrays the Nazis as moustache twirling villains. Its protagonists are Nazis yes, but human beings first and foremost.

Despite our anti-Nazi premonitions, we find ourselves drawn to Captain and the crew,

The main character, Jürgen Prochnow’s unnamed Captain, is a battle-hardened stoic, wise and charming, unafraid to make the toughest decisions in the name of saving his men. He is heroic in a fashion that mimics characters portrayed by Paragons of old Hollywood like Humphrey Bogart or John Wayne; the twist is that he is a Nazi. But Nazis are not supposed to do that! They are not supposed to be heroes. Despite our anti-Nazi premonitions, we find ourselves drawn to Captain and the crew, even when they send allied ships to the bottom of the Atlantic one torpedo at a time.

This is where Hannah Arendt enters the picture. Arendt’s collection of journalistic articles and essays written for the New Yorker reporting on the trial of the Nazi Adolf Eichmann are highly controversial for portraying Eichmann not as the “dangerous beast” that western ideologies strive to paint all Nazis as, but rather as a painfully ordinary bureaucrat blindly obeying orders from his superiors.

Adolf Eichmann was captured by Mossad agents in Argentina in 1960, taken to Israel and tried for crimes against humanity. His defence claimed that he never killed directly but he was, invoking Kantian Deontology, merely fulfilling his duty to follow the orders given to him. It was through his administration and organisation that Jews, gypsies, and many others deemed “unworthy” by Nazi ideology, were deported to concentration camps where they would be executed.

It aims to communicate the same terrifying notion that there is nothing fundamentally different about those who we deem to be diametrically morally opposed to us.

Eichmann in Jerusalem and Das Boot coverage where they both strive to radically challenge the image of the Nazi as an inhuman Other. The crew of Das Boot and Eichmann just are human beings following orders. All their Nazi nastiness is stripped away , leaving humans caught up in a terrible conflict. Das Boot achieves this through the pathos it creates for its characters. Eichmann in Jerusalem is more confrontational in its provocation, but at its heart it aims to communicate the same terrifying notion that there is nothing fundamentally different about those who we deem to be diametrically morally opposed to us.

Image: David Mark from Pixabay

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