I can often gauge the quality of a film by the length of time I sit at its closure reading the credits. When a film is great, I want to make sure that every person with a hand in the film was rightfully recognized. After director Margarethe von Trotta’s new release Hannah Arendt, I sat in the theater until there were no more names to read.
New German Cinema heavyweight director von Trotta turns a biographical lens toward the lauded German-American political theorist Hannah Arendt.
This informative, lively film manages to not stray into being too sentimental as it follows Arendt (Barbara Sukowa) through the Nazi trial that influenced her life’s work. The film explores how this political theorist became the subject of both controversy and accolades in dark times.
Upon the abduction of top Nazi brass Adolf Eichmann by the Israeli police in 1960, Arendt attends his trial, intending to write about it for the New Yorker. Despite Arendt’s own experience in Gurs Jewish internment camp in 1940, she maintains that one cannot put history or ideology or Nazism on trial. “You cannot put history on trial. You can only try Eichmann as one man for murder,” she says in the film.
Her character grapples throughout the movie with the underwhelming mediocrity of the man Eichmann himself. The person she once thought of as a “wild predator” appeared before the Israeli courts as a man whose actions were a result of thoughtlessness and simplemindedness—a result of simply following orders and collapsing under social pressures. It was from this notion that her 1963 New Yorker story assumed the title “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.” It was this phrase “the banality of evil” that she explored for the remainder of her career in assessing notions of power, authority and totalitarianism.
This film effectively explores Hannah’s intellectual life in a time when her political opinion and social circles become crushed under the weight of her staunchly forward thinking. However, von Trotta’s film was careful not to idealize her protagonist. Windows into her personal and intellectual world made Arendt’s glassy countenance accessible without justifying her character flaws or sentimentalizing her career.
Hannah the character maintains the personality and behaviors the real woman was known for. Her academic New York life includes a creaky apartment where there are as many ashtrays as there are stacks of books. Her face is weathered in the way only sleepless nights of writing can do. She is portrayed as a woman of cosmopolitan adventures surrounded by urban sophisticates. Her living room is akin to a literary salon composed of the similarly brilliant and sleepless, wine glasses propped up on stacks of books, and the philosophical banter that accompanies tweeded intellectuals after three drinks. Despite such intelligent and flagrant company, von Trotta’s Hannah is calm, ruminative, and sensitive. She assumes an independence so pure that it has no need of resolute stubbornness to confirm itself. She is the woman who reminds us that “thinking is a lonely business.” von Trotta has her gazing listlessly out of windows, walking pensively through wooded forests. And when she opened her mouth? The voice is a thousand cigarettes cloaked in a heavy German accent.
Despite the swarming influence of great political upheaval and grave philosophical conversation, Hannah is the only character to offer any comic relief. This is an odd sense of authority given to her character where in the midst of oppressively serious airs, only she was allowed to control its release valve. Where romance is the source of another’s agony, Hannah is sarcastic and cavalier about the men in her own life: “Either you are willing to take men as they are, or you live alone.” Where prejudice is the root of hate crimes we see that stereotypes exist even in her day-to-day: “He is taking time off work because of illness or divorce or something American like that.”
As a leader in feminist cinema and the New German Cinema movement, von Trotta is a force to be admired. Lauded for her capacity to explore the inner psychic worlds of great women in history, her work aims to never idealize its subjects or its content. This film refuses to reduce issues of evil and morality to didactic platitudes but honestly investigates human history and the figures that shaped it. It is an absolute treasure to see and inspires its viewers to return to the literature of this lauded thinker.
I caught this gem of a biopic at the Portland International Film Festival gem—watch it wherever you get a chance.