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Thoughtlessness and the Optics of Moral Argument: Screening the Spectacle of Eichmann

Abstract of the presentation by Valerie Hartouni, University of California, San Diego, at the conference on "Filming the Eichmann Trial," February 22-23, 2009

In her controversial work Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt insisted that great evil is not necessarily a reflection of evil motives or an expression of natural depravity. Such evil, she argued, is better understood as the outcome of a certain thoughtlessness or inability to think from another’s point of view. “[O]ne cannot extract any diabolical or demonic profundity from Eichmann,” Arendt wrote, “He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realized what he was doing. It was sheer thoughtlessness–by no means identical with stupidity–that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period.... [S]uch thoughtlessness can wreak more havoc than all the evil instincts taken together... –that was, in fact, the lesson one could learn in Jerusalem.”

Although Arendt sought to distinguish Eichmann’s inability to think from another’s point of view from conventional understandings of “empathy,” much contemporary commentary persists in reading Eichmann’s failure as a failure of empathetic identification. Indeed, even accounts that aim to adopt Arendt’s reading of Eichmann, it seems, cannot easily escape producing “thoughtlessness” as an absence of empathy or rendering what she argued was a political failure (a question of solidarity) as primarily a moral one (a question of sentiment). In this paper, I consider Eyal Sivan and Rony Brauman’s 1999 documentary The Specialist, a densely edited visual text that restages the trial through Arendt’s argument and attempts to recover one of the missed opportunities Arendt identified in her trial report to understand a new kind of criminal and crime. Examining, specifically, the logic of a sequence within the film in which we watch Eichmann watching footage shot by American and Russian troops as they moved across Europe liberating concentration camps, I argue that the documentary inadvertently reproduces precisely the problem it seeks to challenge, and consider how (and why) the apathetic indifference of Sivan and Braumann’s Eichmann, despite the film’s best critical efforts, remains primarily a question of pathology rather than politics, the absence of feeling rather than thought.

Center for Near Eastern Studies