Margarethe von Trotta’s riveting 2012 biopic, Hannah Arendt, focuses on the life and work of the towering 20th-century philosopher who called for herself and her readers to “think without a bannister,” going beyond the ready-made categories into which most of our everyday thoughts and emotions fall. Arendt died in 1975, but her brand of free and adventurous thinking has obvious value in the 21st century, and von Trotta’s film makes her ideas feel fresh and relevant while still grounding them in the history and politics of Arendt’s time.
The movie takes place primarily in the early 1960s, when Arendt wrote a series of New Yorker articles (published as a book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, in 1963) about the internationally watched trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann for organizing the transportation of Holocaust victims to the death camps where they perished. Some key aspects of her analysis were instantly controversial, including her concept of the “banality of evil,” referring to Eichmann’s insistence that no guilt or shame should be placed on him because he was just a bureaucrat “following orders” and “doing his job,” not taking initiative or assuming responsibility for the horrific results of his actions. Arendt said she was not letting Eichmann off the hook for his deadly activities – she disagreed with the old saying that to understand all is to forgive all – and argued that figuring out what made Eichmann tick would cast philosophical and psychological light on the nature of evil in the modern world. Eichmann’s mentality was a prime example of Arendt’s theory that buying into clichés, platitudes and received ideas can crowd out independent thinking so completely that Eichmann, in her view, had forfeited the ability to think at all.
In short, Arendt argued, Eichmann was a mediocrity rather than a monster. And that conclusion dismayed many readers, including many of Arendt’s fellow Jews, who felt Eichmann and his ilk were not ordinary people led astray but sadists and psychopaths whose crimes against humanity were utterly beyond the pale. Taking a sympathetic yet balanced approach to Arendt’s position, von Trotta’s film presents multiple sides of the controversy, airing the fierce objections to her views along with her determined efforts to defend herself as a journalist and an intellectual. In the end, Arendt herself recognizes an error in her reasoning, acknowledging that while evil can’t be both ordinary and radical – only good can be truly radical, since it is the indispensable basis of decency and order – evil is always extreme, even when a stunted personality like Eichmann is committing it. As a thinker without bannisters, Arendt never stopped probing and exploring the deep questions that preoccupied her, and instead of wrapping her career in a neat narrative package, the movie ends with a printed text saying that she kept wrestling with the problem of evil until the end of her life.
Von Trotta has a distinguished record as a political filmmaker drawn to feminist issues, often in historical and biographical contexts; her many works include Rosa Luxemburg (1986), about the Marxist theorist and leader, and Vision (2009), about a 12th-century writer, mystic and rebel against the patriarchy. The star of those pictures is Barbara Sukowa, who also plays Arendt, bringing the philosopher fully alive as a person, with a loving husband and a complicated past, and a professional with duties to perform and colleagues who aren’t always on her side. The film’s most intriguing subplot, seen in occasional flashbacks, concerns Arendt’s bygone love affair with Martin Heidegger (Klaus Pohl), whose reputation as one of the 20th century’s leading philosophers stands in sharp contrast to his involvement with the Nazi party in the 1930s and 1940s. Von Trotta and Sukowa bring out all the ambiguity of Arendt’s youthful relationship with her much older teacher and mentor; this isn’t the main thrust of the film, but including it helps make Hannah Arendt a richly textured portrait of a woman instead of the overly simplified story of a heroine.
Minor celebrities of New York in the 1960s circulate around the edges of the film’s main story, including novelist Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer), fabled New Yorker editor William Shawn (Nicholas Woodeson), playwright Lionel Abel (Joel Kirby) and Arendt’s husband Heinrich Blücher (Axel Milberg), himself a philosopher and poet. All are sharply etched during their brief appearances, contributing to the film’s success, which is also enhanced by Caroline Champetier’s fine cinematography. Arendt’s career took place decades ago, but the moral and ethical issues she investigated are as relevant today as ever.
Director: Margarethe von Trotta
Producer: Betina Brokemper
Screenplay: Margarethe von Trotta and Pamela Katz
Cinematographer: Caroline Champetier
Film Editing: Bettina Böhler
Art Direction: Anja Fromm
Music: André Mergenthaler
Cast: Barbara Sukowa, Axel Milberg, Janet McTeer, Julia Jentsch, Ulrich Noethen, Michael Degen, Nicholas Woodeson, Sascha Ley, Victoria Trauttmansdorff, Klaus Pohl, Friederike Becht, Megan Gay, Tom Leick, Harvey Friedman
by David Sterritt