More than a biopic
Hannah Arendt, a film about the mid-century German Jewish philosopher who examined the roots of totalitarianism, transports the viewer into a late-1950s world of intellectual New York cocktail parties enveloped in swirling cigarette smoke, to the offices of the New Yorker magazine during the period (British actor Nicholas Woodeson's portrayal of the magazine's legendary editor, William Shawn, is pretty much worth the admission price in itself), and of Arendt's own very lively marriage. Arendt fled Nazi Germany, was held for a time in a French concentration camp, and finally made her way to the United States, where she became a naturalized citizen. The level of Mad Men period detail is astonishing, especially for a director, Margarethe von Trotta, who is not American but German.
Von Trotta and her lead actress, Barbara Sukowa, bring fully to life this woman who came face to face with the worst the twentieth century had to offer and tried to bring the philosophical tradition to bear upon it. Sukowa's performance is Oscar worthy: her Arendt, chain-smoking, cutting off anyone deemed unworthy of her intellectual respect, is an unforgettable character. Arendt in the film brings up the touchy subject of some Jewish leaders' collaboration with the Nazis in the early years of Hitler's rule, and she is not much of a Jewish nationalist. "You know I don't love any people--how can I be expected to love the Jews?" she asks.
But Hannah Arendt can't really be called a biopic, and it is more than a vivid evocation of a fascinating and historically significant figure. The film focuses largely on a single episode in Arendt's life: the period in the early 1960s when she wrote for the New Yorker about the trial of Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, and on the backlash her writing triggered.
In deftly incorporated historical footage, we see the nondescript Eichmann's testimony, in which he basically said that he was just following orders and thus couldn't be considered guilty of the
crimes with which he had been charged. In describing Eichmann, Arendt hit upon the phrase "the banality of evil."
By now it has become a familiar idea, but at the time, with the Holocaust just a few years in the past, it was incendiary. Arendt seemed to suggest that the Nazi evil was not of an absolute, unique kind but instead something that might be carried out by any obedient functionary--by any of us, really. Arendt lost close friends, the New Yorker was deluged with angry mail, and there were calls for her dismissal from her academic posts. The film's climactic scenes consist of a lecture in which she defends herself against her detractors.
Hannah Arendt is a film about ideas and about a woman sitting at her desk, writing--both tall orders for a filmmaker. But when the film, in a mixture of English and German, had its local premiere at last spring's Cinetopia film festival, showings in the main theater at the Michigan were almost packed, and it drew strong crowds at the Detroit Institute of Arts in September. Its monologue climax had the Michigan Theater crowd applauding. Hannah Arendt returns to the Michigan on November 2 and 3.
[Originally published in November, 2013.]