Hannah Arendt 13/07/18 3:14
Films about intellectuals are rare—even more rare are films that cover intellectual issues without oversimplifying, or without being boring or schematic. Von Trotta, one of the most important German directors of the last forty years, and unfortunately one of the least seen or appreciated in this country, pulls it off magnificently with the help of her leading actress, Barbara Sukowa, in the title role.
We meet Arendt in 1960, teaching German at the New School and living contentedly in a New York apartment with her husband Heinrich, when she learns the news of Eichmann's capture in Argentina. Immediately she knows that she must go to the trial in Jerusalem and write about it, although Heinrich warns her that it will bring up all the feelings from what he calls "the dark times." Her offer to write a piece on the trial for the New Yorker magazine is eagerly accepted, and we get a taste of her intellectual milieu at cocktail parties that include her best friend, novelist Mary McCarthy (played by Janet McTeer). The conversations are fascinating, and as I said, seem true to life. We gradually learn some of Hannah's backstory, particularly her involvement as a protégé, and then as a lover, of the great German philosopher Martin Heidegger. The shock of that relationship was Heidegger's public approval of Nazism in the 1930s. This trauma, reflected in brief flashbacks, serves as counterpoint to Arendt's complicated response to the Eichmann trial.
The articles that she eventually wrote for the New Yorker famously contrasted the mediocrity of Eichmann the man with the horror of his deeds, coining the phrase "the banality of evil." But Arendt also sparked outrage by stating that the Jewish leaders who ostensibly cooperated with the Nazis in their so-called Jewish councils, administrative bodies acting as liaisons between Germany and the ghettos, probably caused more Jews to die than would have otherwise. The film shows the fierce backlash that ensued against Hannah Arendt because of this, a rejection that included some of her closest friends and associates.
Sukowa conveys the brave, self-confident, intensely cerebral manner of Arendt, qualities that serve at times both as strengths and weaknesses. The film follows her from the energetic engagement with the Eichmann trial through the combativeness of her response to criticism, and ultimately the grief of rejection and ostracism. It's an amazing performance in an extremely difficult role—that of a person whose most significant actions take place in the realm of thought.
What is the nature of evil? And what new insights can we gain from the terrible crimes of totalitarianism in the 20th century? It is a tribute to the remarkable skill of the film Hannah Arendt that we not only come away having learned about the woman, but pondering the questions she asked.