\nMore on Hannah Arendt\nMovie session times\nFull movies coverage\n Fifty years after it was published, Hannah Arendt's book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, is once again the subject of great controversy. When Arendt's book was published in 1963, her report of the trial of the Nazi functionary Adolf Eichmann, whose task it was to organise the transport of Jews to the Holocaust death camps, shocked many people. Most of the major players in that controversy are dead, including Arendt, who died in 1975. Some were Arendt's friends – both critics and defenders. That was one reason why the response to her book was so passionate and, from some, so bitter. German director Margarethe von Trotta's film Hannah Arendt (in Australian cinemas on March 13) is an attempt to bring some of these people to life, to recreate that time and that controversy, the heat and pain of it for Arendt and for others close to her. It focuses on Arendt's reporting of the Eichmann trial and the aftermath of the publication of her report, first as a series of five articles in The New Yorker and then in her book. The film was released in the United States and Europe last year, and it has rekindled some of those fires of controversy that burnt so fiercely a half century ago. The capture and kidnapping of Adolf Eichmann from Argentina in 1960 by Israeli agents and his transport to Israel caused a world-wide sensation. So did his 1961 trial, where he was charged essentially with crimes against the Jewish people, and his eventual execution. Hundreds of journalists attended the trial. Some of the reporting was outstanding, but is now forgotten. Yet Arendt's report was not forgotten. It became the standard text on the trial. Indeed, for many, it became the standard text on the Holocaust. Arendt's judgment on Eichmann was that, far from being some sort of evil monster, he was a mediocre bureaucrat who unthinkingly – because he was incapable of thinking – obeyed orders, an ambitious careerist with no particular hatred for the Jews he helped exterminate. He was, according to Arendt – and she came later to regret using the phrase because of the way she said it was misunderstood – the embodiment of the banality of evil. Over the past half century, "the banality of evil" has become a sort of cliché, used to describe all manner of human wrong-doing with no reference at all to Arendt and her view of Eichmann. For many of Arendt's critics, the fact she took Eichmann more or less at his word that he was not a Jew-hater, and that anti-Semitism played no part in the zeal with which he dispatched the Jews to their death, seemed to discount the central role that anti-Semitism played in the rise of Nazism and its role in turning thousands of Germans into mass murderers on a hitherto unprecedented scale. Subsequent research by historians of the Holocaust, and into Eichmann in particular, provides overwhelming evidence that Arendt was wrong. Instead, they say, Eichmann was a dedicated and ferocious anti-Semite, and his claim to having no animosity towards Jews was a lie designed to buttress his defence that he was a mere cog in a vast machine, simply obeying orders. The other point of heated controversy in Arendt's reporting was her contention that the Jewish councils, set up by the Nazis to run the Jewish communities after the Jews were herded into ghettoes, were complicit in the deportation and murder of their fellow Jews. According to Arendt, had they not done so, had these Jewish leaders refused to co-operate with the Nazis – refused to run their communities, refused to police them, refused to offer up lists of potential deportees – there would still have been widespread suffering and murder, but perhaps up to half the six million Jews who were murdered might have survived. "To a Jew," Arendt wrote, "this role of the Jewish leaders in the destruction of their own people is undoubtedly the darkest chapter of the whole dark story." Re-reading the book all these years later, I find this is still shocking, in part because of the tone of the writing, its lack of emotional empathy, its emphatic judgment of people in unimaginable (literally for Arendt, it seems) helplessness, confronted by an implacable enemy of senseless zeal and ruthlessness. No wonder then that, at the time, the publication of Arendt's book on the Eichmann trial caused such a stir. Friends fell out over it. Families were divided by it. Some of America's greatest writers, including the poets Stephen Spender and Robert Lowell, defended her. The novelist Mary McCarthy described Eichmann in Jerusalem as a "paean of transcendence". Others, like Nobel Prize-winning novelist Saul Bellow and leading American Jewish intellectuals Lionel Abel and Irving Howe, were critical not just of the book but of Arendt herself. The renowned Jewish writer and scholar Gershom Scholem accused Arendt of lacking any love for the Jewish people, then broke off all contact with her. Some Jewish community leaders accused Arendt of being a self-hating Jew who had minimised Eichmann's culpability for the murder of millions of Jews and had instead blamed the victims for their annihilation. The controversy over Arendt's report on the Eichmann trial has never completely died, but Margarethe von Trotta's film has revived it, in part because the director is so clearly sympathetic to Arendt and contemptuous of her critics. The film does not attempt to tell Arendt's life story, though there are scenes that are concerned with Arendt's earlier life. It does touch on Arendt's standing as one the great political scientists and philosophers – her book The Origins of Totalitarianism remains a standard text on that scourge of the 20th century – but only lightly. Nor does it examine the life trajectory of this German-Jewish intellectual who fled Germany in 1933 for Paris, was interned in 1940 in a French transit camp (most of its inhabitants ended up in Auschwitz), then obtained a US visa and spent the rest of her life there, a celebrated academic and writer. It is a remarkable life, an emblematic life, in the sense that so many German-Jewish intellectuals, who considered themselves thoroughly German and did not think their being Jewish was any more than an accident of birth, came to be not just rejected by their fellow German intellectuals but defined wholly by their Jewishness. The film barely touches on any of this and, when it does, the result is at best mystifying and, at worst, a distortion of the truth, which is complicated and contradictory. There are three scenes in the film, flashbacks, to Arendt and the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, with whom Arendt had a life-long relationship, from the time she was his lover when she was a student in the 1920s and he was already one of Germany's most celebrated philosophers. At the time that Arendt was forced to flee Germany, Heidegger joined the Nazi Party and was appointed rector of Heidelberg University, where he did the work of ridding the university of some of its Jewish academics and students. In her book Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger, Elzbieta Ettinger sets out a compelling case that Heidegger was an anti-Semite who believed, at least in the 1930s, that Hitler was onto something as far as the Jewish "pollution" of German intellectual and cultural life was concerned. Heidegger remained a member of the Nazi Party until Germany's defeat in 1945. He never apologised for what he had done; he simply rejected the accusation he had done anything at all. He was banned from any university position on account of his Nazism for five years after the war, but was then rehabilitated. When Heidegger was accused of being a Nazi after the war, Arendt defended him. She believed him when he insisted people were telling lies about him; she translated his books into English, visited him, and even formed a relationship with Heidegger's wife, about whose anti-Semitism and enthusiastic support for Hitler and Nazism there was no doubt. But none of this is clear from the scenes in the film. Indeed, what these scenes are meant to reveal is entirely opaque. There's the student Arendt visiting the great philosopher in his office, where she expresses her excitement at his thinking; there's the young Arendt waiting for Heidegger in a room and when he arrives, he takes off his coat, kneels and buries his head in her lap; and there's a post-war scene, in a forest somewhere in Germany, where Arendt tells Heidegger how shocked she was by a speech he gave supporting Hitler in 1933, when he was rector of Heidelberg University, and calls him a fool. Why these scenes are there in a film about Arendt's reporting of the Eichmann trial and the controversy that followed is a mystery; if you don't know the back story, they make no sense. This is not to suggest that Arendt's relationship with Heidegger is unimportant. It is, particularly when it comes to examining Eichmann in Jerusalem. So is the fact of her German-Jewish intellectual background and her life-long enthralment with German philosophy and literature. Her relationship with Heidegger is relevant, for if Eichmann's crimes were the result of his lack of thinking, his thoughtlessness, what then of Heidegger's support for Hitler and Nazism, his anti-Semitism? What is lacking from Arendt's reporting is any sense of the person who is writing, the writer's emotional response to what she is witness to, and the (surely monumental) baggage she has brought with her to the task. None of this is to suggest that Eichmann in Jerusalem is not a great book. It is, even now when research into the Holocaust has uncovered so much about what happened and how it happened that Arendt could not have possibly known. But despite the research and the mountains of documents that have been uncovered, despite the testimony of thousands of survivors and perpetrators, the Holocaust, at the deepest level, remains unknowable and inexplicable. As the literary critic Adam Kirsch wrote recently in The New York Times, what was lacking in Arendt's book was a sense "that, at times, the only adequate response to the Holocaust was mute pity and terror".