Hannah Arendt: Interview with Director Von Trotta

Hannah Arendt, the fascinating biopic of the controversial philosopher, is released by Zeitgeist Films

Q: Your films always offer an intense confrontation with significant historical figures: Rosa Luxemburg, Hildegard von Bingen, the Ensslin sisters. What excited you about Hannah Arendt?

MVT: The question of how to make a film about a woman who thinks. How to watch a woman whose main action is thinking. Of course I was also afraid I wouldn’t do her justice. This made the cinematic portrayal far more difficult than, for example, with Rosa Luxemburg. Both women were highly intelligent and unique individuals, both were gifted in their capacity for love and friendship, and both were provocative thinkers and speakers. Hannah Arendt’s life was not as dramatic as that of Rosa Luxemburg—but it was important and moving.

To find out more about her, I not only read her books and letters but also tried to find people who had known her. Through these many conversations, I gradually discovered what I wanted to say about her, and which time in her life would best serve my intentions. Sometimes I was actually quite afraid of her.

She would suddenly appear so abrasive and arrogant. Only after the famous conversation with Günter Gaus did I finally become convinced that Arendt was truly a charming, witty and pleasant person. After watching them together, I understood what Gaus meant when he said later in an interview that she was the kind of woman for whom you instantly fell.

Q: Working on the script with American screenwriter Pam Katz. You decided to focus the film on the four years around the 1961 Adolf Eichmann trial.

We wanted to tell Hannah Arendt’s story without reducing the importance of her life and work, but also without resorting to the all too sprawling structure of a typical biopic. After Rosenstrasse and The Other Woman, Hannah Arendt is my third collaboration with Pam Katz. We were therefore able to write the script in a sort of “ping-pong” technique, continuously discussing the work via email, telephone, and in person in New York, Paris and Germany. Our first question was: what should we choose to show of Arendt’s life? Her love affair with Martin Heidegger (which many probably expected)? Her escape from Germany? Her years in Paris or her years in New York? After wrestling with all of these possibilities, it finally became clear that focusing on the four years where she reported on and wrote about Eichmann was the best way to portray both the woman and her work. The confrontation between Arendt and Eichmann allowed us to not only illuminate the radical contrast between these two protagonists, but also to gain a deeper understanding of the dark times of 20th-century Europe.

Arendt famously declared that “No one has the right to obey.” With her staunch refusal to obey anything other than her own knowledge and beliefs, she could not be more different than Eichmann. His duty, as he himself insisted, was to be faithful to his oath to obey the orders of his superiors. In this blind allegiance, Eichmann surrendered one of the main characteristics that distinguishes human beings from all other species: the ability to think for himself. The film shows Arendt as a political theorist and independent thinker set against her precise opposite: the submissive bureaucrat who does not think at all, and instead chooses to be an enthusiastic
subordinate.

Capturing Eichmann’s “not-thinking” character through the black-and-white archival footage from the trial.

You can only show the true “banality of evil” by observing the real Eichmann. An actor can only distort the
image, he could never sharpen it. As a viewer, one might admire the actor’s brilliance but they would inevitably fail to comprehend Eichmann’s mediocrity. He was a man who was unable to formulate a single grammatically correct sentence. One could tell from the way he spoke that he was unable to think in any significant way about what he was doing.

There is only one scene with Barbara Sukowa that takes place in the actual courtroom; and there, because it had to be an actor, you only see Eichmann’s back. We filmed all the other courtroom scenes in the pressroom, where the trial was actually shown on several monitors. This was a way of being able to use the real Eichmann, via the archival footage, in all the important moments. But we had also come to believe that since Hannah Arendt was a heavy smoker, she would have spent more time in the pressroom than in the courtroom. That way, she could follow the trial and smoke at the same time. Many of the other journalists also watched the trial on the TV screens and filed reports at the same time. By the way, long after writing this sequence, we were finally able to speak
with Arendt’s niece, Edna Brocke, who was with her in Jerusalem at the time. She confirmed that her aunt had indeed spent most of her time in the pressroom because she was allowed to smoke there!

Hannah Arendt would not be a von Trotta film if we failed to see Hannah Arendt as a woman, lover and friend.

The film is also about her life in New York, her friends, her love for Martin Heidegger—even if we were convinced that Heinrich Blücher is was a far more important figure in her life. She called Heinrich her “four walls,” meaning her “one true home.” Heidegger was Hannah Arendt’s first love, and she remained connected to him despite his affiliation with the Nazis.

At the very beginning of my research, Lotte Köhler, Arendt’s only remaining living friend, gave me the book of published correspondence between Heidegger and Arendt. But she made sure to let me know that Arendt had kept all his letters in her bedside drawer.

In a flashback, we show Arendt meeting him during a visit to Germany. This meeting actually took place, although just several weeks before their encounter, she had written a letter to her friend and mentor, Karl
Jaspers, in which she called Heidegger a murderer. Arendt’s niece said that her aunt explained her ongoing relationship with Heidegger by insisting that “some things are stronger than a human being.”

Barbara Sukowa as Hannah Arendt

I saw Barbara Sukowa in the role of Hannah Arendt right from the very beginning, and fortunately managed to overcome any initial resistance to casting her. I would not have made this film without Barbara. I needed an actress that I could watch while she was thinking. Barbara was the only one who could be relied upon to meet this difficult challenge.

Barbara Sukowa’s eight-minute speech at the end of the film, a challenge of holding the audience’s attention for so long.

Many felt that a film about Hannah Arendt should actually start with a speech. But we begin with a conversation between girlfriends talking about their husbands. We wanted the final speech to be the moment where the audience finally understands the conclusions her thinking has brought to light. Only after one has watched her as she gleaned her insights about Eichmann’s character, and seen how she was so brutally and often unfairly attacked for them, are you then willing to listen to her for so long. By then, one has fallen in love with her, as well as her way of thinking. Barbara’s performance is both so intelligent, and so emotional, it takes your breath away. We have moved gradually towards this moment, slowly giving the audience the opportunity to understand the building blocks of Arendt’s complex thoughts and to comprehend what she meant by the banality of evil. The speech is both the intellectual and the
emotional climax of the entire film.

Female Crew: Coincidence or conscious decision?

The co-writer Pam Katz, the producer Bettina Brokemper, the cinematographer Caroline Champetier, the editor Bettina Böhler. I didn’t plan it that way—it just happened. But then again perhaps it wasn’t a coincidence. Hannah Arendt was the opposite of a feminist and Hannah Arendt is also not a typical “woman’s film.” It is a film made by highly dedicated and professional people committed to telling a story that does justice to her life.

Karl Jaspers, Hannah Arendt’s teacher and friend, said, “the venture into the public realm is only possible when there is trust in people.” Each one of your films is such a venture. How does this apply to Hannah Arendt?

In the spirit of Hannah Arendt, trusting the audience to move through ignorance and amazement to the desire to understand, and ultimately to arrive at such an understanding.