Arendt in Sarajevo

On La force diagonale

Hannah Proctor

La force diagonale (The Diagonal Force)
Year 2023

Annik Leroy and Julie Morel’s La force diagonale meditates on how individual lives unfold within history, riffing subtly on the life and philosophical work of Hannah Arendt. In its opening minutes, a cable car is shown moving above a snowy landscape, a shot that recalls the opening of Béla Tarr’s Damnation (1988), which gives some sense of its overall aesthetic and tone. Shot in austere black and white very occasionally interrupted by short bursts in colour, the film begins with a series of individual portraits.

Unlike the conventions typical of documentary talking heads, these opening interviews are shot in a stylized manner. Rather than speaking to camera we often hear the voices of interviewees over footage of them standing or sitting silently, drawing attention to the subtle movements of their faces. On the surface, the different figures have little in common; what brings them together is how their lives have been shaped by dramatic and traumatic events, by social withdrawal, and later, by seeking solace from social repression and violence in art or alternative communities. First, a former tram driver describes surviving a shelling during the siege of Sarajevo and the lasting psychic impact of her wartime experiences: “life goes on but the wounds linger.” Then, a sculptor who has drilled deep into rocks muses on geological time, how paltry human lives seem in comparison to the temporality of the earth. A Belgian man with a German father recounts how being bullied at school led him to pursue a profound seclusion before having a transformative encounter with the experimental community for autistic children set up by the French pedagogue Fernand Deligny. Finally, a Congolese man orphaned in his youth describes the difficulty of his childhood before discussing how his love of singing has functioned as a source of hope.

The film shifts in its second half, moving to depict a choreographed sequence performed by dancer Claire Vivianne Sobottke. In these later scenes Sobottke moves through a woodland landscape and clambers around a large barn-like building. Various actors read extracts from the work and correspondence of Arendt in French and German; the excerpts are often personal rather than theoretical, focusing on Arendt’s experiences of exile and of love. As with the preceding portraits, the viewer is allowed to find their own correspondences and links between the disparate fragments. The film is more suggestive than didactic, its various thematic threads loosely woven to give the impression of a diaphanous fabric catching light in the wind, rather than producing a taut evenly spun surface.

I was struck, watching it, of how different the approach was to the only other film I’m familiar with that responds to Arendt’s work: Margarethe von Trotta’s 2012 biopic Hannah Arendt. Unlike La force diagonale, in which Arendt’s words are presented without contextualization, von Trotta’s film is far more formally conventional. It focuses on the publication of the chain-smoking philosopher’s analysis of the Nazi Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Israel in 1961, originally serialized in the New Yorker in 1963. Observing the trial, Arendt was struck by how Eichmann did not come across as a terrifying, satanic figure or a fanatical antisemite despite his horrific deeds, but instead as an unthinking bureaucrat, chilling in his ordinariness. Eichmann embodied what she famously called the “banality of evil.” As Arendt observed, “the unprecedented, once it has appeared, may become a precedent for the future.”

Von Trotta dramatizes Arendt’s experiences just before and during the trial (in a section including archival footage of Eichmann’s cross-examinations and Holocaust survivors’ testimonies), but the film mostly explores the aftermath. Arendt, a German Jew who had fled Germany after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 and subsequently fled to the US from an internment camp in France in 1941, was vehemently attacked when her articles were first published. The most controversial passages in her text argued that evidence presented at Eichmann’s trial suggested that the actions of Jewish leaders in Europe may have exacerbated the Holocaust’s overall death toll, an implied complicity of the victims with the perpetrators that angered many readers. Barbara Sukowa’s steely yet vulnerable Arendt is shown by von Trotta in her New York apartment receiving piles of furious letters, including death threats and a note from a downstairs neighbour calling her a “Nazi whore.” Smoking, always smoking, the film depicts her frosty interactions with acquaintances in the New York intelligentsia and defiant lectures to her students, as well as showing how some of her lifelong friends turned against her for her perceived lack of loyalty to the Zionist project and the Jewish people.

Watching La force diagonale, I found myself straining to find a more straight-forwardly historical narrative or a more obvious political argument in the directors’ presentation of Arendt’s work. Given the urgency of the current moment—where Israel’s genocidal onslaught on Gaza continues—I found myself impatient with the film’s elusive and allusive qualities. I found von Trotta’s approach easier to make sense of but then I began to wonder why I found the transparency of her approach and the film’s pedestrian formal qualities so consoling. Perhaps Morel and Leroy leave more space for the viewer to form their own associations.

As well as during the choreographed section, a reading from Arendt’s work also features earlier in La force diagonale, as voiceover accompanying footage of bullet scarred buildings in present day Sarajevo, but the voice is so low in the sound mix that it is almost inaudible beneath the diegetic noise of traffic. The snatches of speech that break through suggest it is a passage from the closing section of her epic 1951 text The Origins of Totalitarianism, in which she argues that the emergence of totalitarianism in 20th century Europe was connected to increased loneliness; The film’s choice to render it as such means the relation of Arendt’s work to the aftermath of the siege of Sarajevo is left unclear, but the experience of straining to make out Arendt’s words seems to pose it as a question to the viewer. This is also one of very few moments in the film where it briefly switches to colour, reminding me that the footage was shot in present day Sarajevo, and suggesting that the forces of history continue to shape the present. Perhaps the deliberate muffling of the voice by the filmmakers suggests that the connections between the past and the present or between catastrophic historical events in different places are not always easy to discern, but that bullet scars remain. “Life goes on but the wounds linger.”

Hannah Proctor is a writer and historian who works at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. Her book Burnout: The Emotional Experience of Political Defeat is out now with Verso Books.

This text was commissioned by Open City Documentary Festival to accompany the screening of La force diagonale (The Diagonal Force) at Close-Up Cinema, 27 April 2024.