The German philosopher Martin Heidegger was so rooted in his concept of being that he failed to resist - or even recognise - the Nazis when they came knocking on his door. Resistance, of course, would have threatened his status as rector of Freiburg University and so the acclaimed author of Being and Time moved seamlessly into the Nazi embrace. Dissembling, equivocal, the man who exalted the Germany of Wagner, Beethoven and Schubert über alles and who wrote ‘Man is not the lord of beings. Man is the shepherd of beings,’ eventually fell from grace and stood accused of infecting a generation of students with Nazi ideology.
The brief but passionate affair with his Jewish student Hannah Arendt in 1925 fires this intelligent, perceptive play, which examines the political conditions which can move some to greatness and others to moral cowardice.
Fodor’s play, tautly directed by Pat Garrett, was acclaimed following its off-Broadway production last year and is now premiered in London. Less an analysis of academic differences and more a breakdown of love in the face of reason, the play starts out with the Nuremberg Trials, which Hannah, having escaped to America, is covering for an American paper. There are flashbacks to the affair between the two lovers in a Europe whose Enlightenment ideals are inexorably crushed by the machine of war.
Mesmerised by her mentor, Hannah at first embarked on a career translating his letters, but was to discover that Heidegger was a man of straw. While he analysed being, she had to focus on doing. ‘I wanted to be both German and Jewish, but I soon learned it was not possible,’ she said. Their affair ended and in 1930 she married a Jewish philosopher involved in Zionist politics, but they divorced and her second husband was a German political refugee. Hannah became politically active and, years later, when reporting the Eichmann trial for a US newspaper, she coined the phrase ‘the banality of evil’. As for Heidegger, he was soon discredited by the Nazis and sent to dig trenches.
Yet it is Hannah who rose to the occasion as a passionate Zionist campaigner and academic. She rescued Jewish children, berated Jewish collaborators, and finally forced her former mentor-lover to confront his Nazi past – for which he never apologised.
Vivienne Rowdon as Hannah, and Greg Patmore as Heidegger, engage in an ideological battle in which, ironically, both share the same romantic and political visions. The difference is that Arendt is a Jew and has to act practically, both to save her own skin and that of others. Heidegger, played with lofty intent by Patmore, has nothing but job and status to lose, yet he loses both.
The award-winning playwright sensitively evokes Heidegger’s cultural obsessions and political confusion which allow him to believe the Nazis can restore dignity to a Germany broken by the First World War.
Some analysts read a weakness in Heidegger’s thinking which made him vulnerable to such casuistry. Yet it is he who observes that ‘Life is easy for sheep, but for a fully developed, reasoned being, it is difficult.’
However, in a gesture to her past love, Hannah fights for Heidegger’s reinstatement at university despite the efforts of her high-minded student, Alice, energetically played by Sarah Savage, to persuade her otherwise.
Patmore as Heidegger conjures the perverse longing of this flawed character for the sublime, the ineffable, in the German Zeitgeist. And in Rowdon’s credible portrayal, we see Hannah grow from gawky, love-lorn student to a self-possessed and courageous intellectual. Sarah Savage as Alice, Hannah’s student, brilliantly hints at Hannah’s own, younger self in her moralistic outrage.