Film Final Lisa Sternlieb. Film Final Lisa Sternlieb. In 1961 Hannah Arendt coined the expression “the banality of evil.” Arendt, a prominent philosopher, was reporting on the Adolph Eichmann trial in Jerusalem. Eichmann had been in charge of deporting millions of Jews to the concentration camps, had fled to South America after the war, and had been kidnapped and brought back to Israel for trial by Israeli agents. Arendt believed that Eichmann had not helped to murder millions of people for ideological, but for professional reasons. He was a careerist, an opportunist. He had helped to murder millions of people because he wanted to advance his career. Arendt believed that Eichmann had behaved as he did because he was, first and foremost, profoundly stupid. He was unable to think for himself and was good at following orders. He did not make policy; he did what he was told to do.
Historians and philosophers have debated the truths of Arendt’s analysis for decades. Some have accused Arendt of ignoring Eichmann’s extreme anti-Semitism. Whether accurate or not, “the banality of evil” has become an important way of thinking about the Holocaust. Some scholars have used the expression to think about the fact that the Holocaust could not have taken place without the help of electricians, plumbers, railroad workers, and bureaucrats. Is the man who laid the gas pipes a murderer? Or was he “just doing his job”? Are those who work for enormous organizations that manufacture weapons guilty? Or are they removed from direct responsibility for what their organization does? Are they “complicit” if they are “just following orders”? Some scholars have used “the banality of evil” to argue that what happened in Germany in the 1930s and 40s could happen anywhere. Every society has the potential to produce Adolph Eichmanns. Eichmann is one of the main characters in Conspiracy.
Consider the films we have watched in the last half of the semester – Max, Roger& Me, Network, The Lives of Others, Judgment at Nuremberg, Meet John Doe, Zelig, and the films you’ve watched on your own – It’s a Wonderful Life, Conspiracy, The Pianist, Capitalism: A Love Story, Dirty, Pretty Things, The Third Man. How do these films take on the subjects of responsibility and complicity? Is “I was just doing my job” an acceptable excuse for engaging in immoral behavior or making it easier for others to commit crimes and/or immoral deeds? Has it become more or less difficult to lead a moral life? Do most jobs require us to abandon or compromise our values? Have capitalism and a global economy made it easier or harder to live an ethical life? What is the role of the artist in these films? Can the artist/writer/filmmaker change the world? Must an artist’s work/life also be compromised? How easily can any person think for him/herself? How easily can an individual emerge from the crowd? Is it more important to follow orders or to find ways to resist? Is success possible without following orders? Are “successful” people always team players? Which virtue matters more — loyalty or honesty? Is it best to go along with the system because no individual is strong enough to take on anything so powerful? WHY do people do what they do? What do these films tell us about people’s motivations? Are people inherently bad? Inherently different from each other? Is money most people’s prime consideration? Power? Security? Why/How does a country, a city, an organization, a community resort to evil? Is it inevitable? Are human beings inherently self-interested? Is evil a slippery slope? Does one immoral act (inevitably) lead to further evil? Do these films have anything to say about the relationship between education and morality? Literacy and morality? Art and morality?. Are these films hopeful, hopeless?. How have these films made you think about your own lives and this moment in history?
Banality means trite, unimaginative, prosaic, dull, unoriginal.
Your essay should discuss 4 films. (You may discuss more, not less, if you like.) At least 2 of these must be films we did not watch in class. 2 must be films from the latter half of the semester. These specific questions are just suggestions. But your essay needs to discuss the banality of evil. Your essay should use specific, concrete examples from each film you discuss.
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