Hannah Arendt (2012): German Director Margarethe von Trotta’s Biopic of German-Jewish Philosopher and Political Theorist, Starring Barbara Sukowa.

From the Vaults:

Margarethe von Trotta directed Hannah Arendt, a stirring biopic starring Barbara Sukowa, centering on the life of German-Jewish philosopher and political theorist.

Grade: B+

The film focuses on Arendt’s response to the 1961 trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann, which she covered for The New Yorker.

Her writing on the trial became controversial for its depiction of both Eichmann and the Jewish councils, and for its introduction of Arendt’s now-famous concept of “the banality of evil.”

As the film opens Eichmann has been captured in Argentina. It is revealed that he escaped there via the “rat line” and with forged papers. Arendt, now a professor in New York, volunteers to write about the trial for The New Yorker and is given the assignment. Observing the trial, she is impressed by how ordinary and mediocre Eichmann appears. She had expected someone scary, a monster, and he does not seem to be that. In a cafe conversation in which the Faust story is raised it is mentioned that Eichmann is not in any way a Mephisto (the devil). Returning to New York, Arendt has massive piles of transcripts to go through.

Her husband has a brain aneurysm, almost dying, and causing her further delay. She continues to struggle with how Eichmann rationalized his behavior through platitudes about bureaucratic loyalty, and that he was just doing his job.

When her material is finally published, it immediately creates controversy, resulting in angry phone calls and falling out with her old friend, Hans Jonas.

Socializing with her friend, novelist Mary McCarthy, she insists that she is being misunderstood, and that the critics who accuse her of “defending” Eichmann have not read her work. McCarthy broaches the subject of Arendt’s love relationship many years ago with philosopher Martin Heidegger, a Nazi collaborator. As a result, Arendt is shunned by many colleagues and former friends.

The film closes with a final speech she gives to students, in which she says this trial was about a new type of crime that did not previously exist. A court had to define Eichmann as a man on trial for his deeds. It was not a system or an ideology that was on trial, only a man. But Eichmann was a man who renounced all qualities of personhood, showing that great evil is committed by “nobodies” without motives or intentions–call it “the banality of evil”.

The biopic captures Arendt at one of the pivotal moments of her life and career. The take also contains portraits of other prominent intellectuals, such as the philosopher Martin Heidegger, novelist Mary McCarthy and New Yorker editor William Shawn.

Hannah Arendt makes use of original film footage from the 1961 Eichmann trial, in black & white, as well as the real testimony of survivors and the prosecutor, Gideon Hausner.

Led by a powerful performance from Barbara Sukowa, Hannah Arendt dramatizes effectively the life of a complex public figure. It’s always a challenge to make an accessible film about an intellectual thinker, whose “actions” consists of words and speeches.

Indeed, the climax, in which Arendt defends herself against critics, represents a great and engaging courtroom scene, which surpasses similar scenes in other court drams.

The multi-faceted film captures Arendt’s fearsome cerebral power, as well as her human warmth and the essential curiosity that drove her to take risks to the extremes.

Here is to hope that, after fifty years of controversy, the film may still provoke public debate about this seminal figure and the socio-political contexts in which she lived, and thrived.

Barbara Sukowa as Hannah Arendt
Friederike Becht as young Hannah
Janet McTeer as Mary McCarthy
Klaus Pohl as Martin Heidegger
Nicholas Woodeson as William Shawn
Axel Milberg as Heinrich Blücher
Julia Jentsch as Lotte Köhler
Ulrich Noethen as Hans Jonas
Michael Degen as Kurt Blumenfeld (the character portraying a mix of real Kurt Blumenfeld and Gershom Scholem)
Victoria Trauttmansdorff as Charlotte Beradt
Harvey Friedman as Thomas Miller
Megan Gay as Francis Wells
Claire Johnson as Mrs. Serkin
Gilbert Johnston as Professor Kahn
Tom Leik as Jonathan Schell