Directed by: Margarethe von Trotta.
Written by: Pam Katz & Margarethe von Trotta.
Starring: Barbara Sukowa (Hannah Arendt), Axel Milberg (Heinrich Blücher), Janet McTeer (Mary McCarthy), Julia Jentsch (Lotte Köhler), Ulrich Noethen (Hans Jonas), Michael Degen (Kurt Blumenfeld), Nicholas Woodeson (William Shawn), Victoria Trauttmansdorff (Charlotte Beradt), Klaus Pohl (Martin Heidegger), Friederike Becht (Young Hannah Arendt).
Hannah Arendt is more a film of ideas – and their power – than anything else. In the film Barbara Sukowa plays famed German-Jew writer/political thinker/philosopher (although she hated that word)/university professor Hannah Arendt, who in the early 1960s provoked heated debate, and was condemned from all sides for her series of articles in the New Yorker than she turned into the book Eichmann in Jerusalem” about Adolf Eichmann – the Nazi war criminal responsible for overseeing the trains that took Jews to the Concentration Camps where they were murdered en masse. After the war, Eichmann escaped Germany on a fake passport and made his way to Argentina – where eventually the Mossad found him, kidnapped him and took him back to Israel to stand trial.
Arendt questioned the legality of kidnapping Eichmann (which is true), but not the morality of Israel’s standing to put Nazi criminals on trial. She also criticized the trial as merely a show trial – an excuse for Israel to put victims of the Holocaust on the stand with the whole world watching, whether or not they had anything to do with Eichmann’s guilt or innocence. Ultimately however, Arendt does concur with the verdict against Eichmann – and the death sentence that came along with it. That wasn’t what got her in trouble.
What got her in trouble were two separate ideas. The first being her famous phrase “the banality of evil” to describe Eichmann. To Arendt, she had to find a way to reconcile the “mediocrity of the man” with the extraordinary evil of his crimes, ultimately concluding that Eichmann’s greatest crime was his refusal to think for himself – and when he refused to do that, he gave up his humanity, and allowed unspeakable atrocities to occur. This came too close to an apology for Nazis for many, who preferred to see Eichmann and his kind as inhuman monsters. What got her into even more trouble however was her contention that the role that Jewish leaders played in the Holocaust helped increase the number of Jews who were killed by the Nazis. It was part of the trial – and is fairly well established now – that there were quite a few Jewish leaders, who for various reasons, collaborated with the Nazis. But back in 1960 – especially in the intellectual community in New York, which had many Jewish people – who either escaped with their lives, or knew people who did not – these ideas were incendiary. To many, Arendt was making an apology for the Nazis, and blaming the Jews for their own destruction.
The film based on these events is at its best when it sticks to Arendt’s ideas – and the debate that they stirred. Sukowa delivers a fierce, stubborn, intelligent performance as Arendt – a woman who is fully convinced she is right, and for most of the runtime of the movie refuses to defend herself or apologize. She said everything she wanted to say in her writing. The University where she teaches tries to force her out – but she refuses to go, and has the support of her students. Israel sends agents to try and convince her to stop publication of the book – and tell her it will never be published in Israel (apparently it was eventually translated into Hebrew and published there – but that was only recently). She loses friends over her book – and is called ugly names by many, and has her past dragged out (seen in awkward flashbacks) when she was the student (and according to the movie, the lover) of Martin Heidegger, the German intellectual, who joined the Nazi party in 1933.
Arendt’s stirring final speech – in front of her students – where she finally agrees to defend and explain herself and what she has written is the highlight of the movie. It will undoubtedly remind many of a courtroom summation – a grand, impassioned defense of her ideas and ideals.
The film is less stirring in many of the more personal moments in the film. I did enjoy the unlikely friendship between Arendt and author Mary McCarthy - played by the wonderful Janet McTeer – who has an excellent scene where she defends Arendt. But the portrait of Arendt’s marriage to poet Heinrich Blücher (Axel Milberg) is less compelling – if only because it takes us away from what is so compelling in the rest of the movie. The film also takes quite a while to get going – the first half hour or so seems to be endless parties and discussions or little consequence. Once Arendt gets to Jerusalem, and starts covering the Eichmann trial (the movie, wisely, decides to use archival footage of instead of casting an actor to play him – like Clooney did with McCarthy in Good Night and Good Luck), the movie becomes far more compelling.
To some, Hannah Arendt will be an overly talky movie – there is little in the movie other than talk to be sure. But I found the film fascinating. Co-written and directed by Margarethe von Trotta, Hannah Arendt finds an interesting way to tell what seems like a completely un-cinematic story. This is a movie about intelligent people engaged in intellectual debate – and while that may sound boring, the result is far from dull.