Hannah Arendt (Margarethe von Trotta – Germany/Luxembourg/France/Israel) 113 minutes
Margarethe von Trotta’s latest portrayal of female German historical figures features the political theorist Hannah Arendt, or more precisely, the few months in 1961 surrounding the trial of Adolf Eichmann, about which Arendt wrote her famous articles for the New Yorker (subsequently published as Eichmann in Jerusalem). Barbara Sukowa, a regular in von Trotta’s films, in which she has already played Rosa Luxemburg, Hildegard von Bingen and a fictionalised Gudrun Esslin, is Arendt, a role you suspect she has been waiting her whole life to fill. Other figures in the film include Arendt’s husband, the Marxist Heinrich Blücher (Axel Milberg), her friend, the novelist Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer) and New Yorker editor William Shawn (Nicholas Woodeson). It is very much a talky affair, with the capture and trial of Eichmann discussed at length by Arendt’s largely German emigré circle, a colloquy that becomes more fractious after Arendt shocks the Jewish community with the publication of her first article.
The film is particularly strong on the development of Arendt’s famous concept of the banality of evil, which it suggests came to her as she sat watching the live relay of the trial in the Jerusalem press room. We see the actual archive footage of Eichmann in the dock, in which he berates the prosecution for their inaccuracies and selective interpretation of the bureaucratic evidence that he is only too familiar with. What causes the shit-storm back in New York though is her assertion that the number of Jewish deaths might have been less had there not been a Jewish leadership to co-operate with the Nazis. Viewed today, it is not an incredibly contentious argument but it inflamed Jewish opinion in both New York and Israel (where some of those leaders, such as Rudolf Kastner, assassinated in 1957, had taken refuge). Arendt received hate mail, was reviled as a self-hating Jew, many of her friends turned against her, Mossad turned up on her doorstep to issue veiled threats, and she was subject to academic intimidation, of the sort US critics of Israel today would recognise.
Arendt, despite the personal hurt caused her by her friends’ desertion, was unwavering – knowing most of her critics to be as intellectually mediocre as she found Eichmann to be – and Sukowa captures very well the imperious, at times overly-dispassionate, side to her character. Unfortunately she hams it up a little in the more dramatic scenes, particularly her defence in front of her students at the New School – while the intention is to convey impassioned argumentation, it reminds you a little too much of Lili von Stupp in Blazing Saddles. The film also protrays in flashback her romantic relationship with Martin Heidegger, her one-time teacher and mentor. While it makes perfect sense to evoke what would have been an undoubtedly seismic effect on Arendt's life – particularly given Heidegger's later collaboration with the Nazis – seeing the author of Being and Time playing hanky-panky with Hannah Arendt moves the film into the realm of the risible. Von Trotta’s direction is also overly academic – the film resembles a TV movie, or mini-series even, which is not surprising as her career in recent years has alternated between projects for TV and the big screen. Still, that hasn’t hampered its fortunes in Germany, where it has been a big hit at the box office. While the film may have the commendable effect of making Arendt known to a general audience, it really is a work that is far from approaching the stature of its subject, despite the best efforts of all involved.