Written by Margarethe von Trotta and Pamela Katz
Starring: Barbara Sukowa, Axel Milberg, Janet McTeer
Run time: 109 minutes
In German and English, with English subtitles
From watching “Hannah Arendt,” we learn that it is possible to make a taut, compelling film about intellectuals, their opinions and discourse. All it takes is a story based on the life of Hannah Arendt (an exceptional political theorist who followed her convictions irrespective of the personal cost), a brilliant director and a fabulous lead actor to delve into Arendt’s intellect and courage.
Hannah Arendt (1906 – 1975), played by the fascinating Barbara Sukowa, was a remarkable woman, one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century, a German-Jewish American, an independent thinker in philosophy, modern theology and psychiatry. Arendt’s works explore politics, democracy, authority, totalitarianism and the nature of power.
She was already renowned for her treatises, “The Origins of Totalitarianism” (1951) and “The Human Condition” (1958), when in 1961, she volunteered to journey to Jerusalem to report on the Adolf Eichmann trial for The New Yorker magazine. It was as though her life to that point had prepared her for articles on this trial.
As a student at the University of Marburg, Arendt studied philosophy with Martin Heidegger (and had an affair with him). When life in Germany became impossible for Jews, she fled to France, which was safe for a while. In 1940, she married the German poet and Marxist philosopher Heinrich Blücher (excellent Axel Milberg), a self-educated man from a working class background and former Communist Party member, who later taught at Bard College.
Arendt was incarcerated in the notorious French detention camp, Gurs, but was able to escape after several weeks. In 1941, Arendt and her family obtained special visas through Hiram Bingham, U.S. Vice Consul in Marseilles, France, who helped over 2,500 Jews flee from France as Nazi forces advanced. Finally, Arendt, her husband and her mother emigrated to the United States and settled on the Upper West side of New York City.
The thrust of the film captures Arendt’s experience reporting on the trial of Adolf Eichmann and writing the New Yorker articles that developed into her still controversial and divisive “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil” (1963).
SS Lieutenant-Colonel Eichmann was chief of the Jewish Office of the Gestapo during World War II and implemented the “Final Solution,” which aimed at the total extermination of European Jewry. His “resettlement” department created death camps, developed gassing techniques and organized the system of convoys that took European Jewry and others to their deaths.
Eichmann had escaped to Argentina in 1946. When he was captured by Israeli intelligence agents in 1960, he was secretly abducted to Israel, and publicly tried in Jerusalem. Eichmann is the only man ever sentenced to death in Israel.
Eichmann’s trial was the first one ever televised. In the film’s black and white footage of the trial, he resembles an ordinary dull-looking man. On the stand, Eichmann explained that he didn’t actually kill anyone. He merely implemented Hitler’s “Final Solution.”
Arendt’s New Yorker article turned in to five articles and her book, “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.” Arendt concurred with several Israeli psychiatrists that Eichmann was “normal.” He seemed to have an ordinary personality, displaying neither guilt nor loathing. She suggested that this discredits the idea that the Nazi criminals were manifestly psychopathic and different from ordinary people. She questioned whether evil is radical or a function of one’s inability to think, or one’s need to follow mass opinion and obey orders without an understanding of the consequences.
Arendt’s articles were broadly misunderstood as defending Eichmann and blaming Jewish leaders for the Holocaust. She was reviled and hated by the public. Her social circle of German – Jewish friends condemned her. The crucial scene in the film is Arendt’s speech to her New School students where she explained that anyone who wishes to write about Germany in World War II has a duty to try to understand what turns ordinary people into tools of totalitarianism.
This film is blessed with legendary German actress Barbara Sukowa, who is brilliant as Arendt, even in the (many) close-up shots of Arendt smoking and thinking. Director Margarethe von Trotta has made the story of Hannah Arendt come alive, although von Trotta’s point of view is visible. The supporting cast is wonderful, including Janet McTeer as author Mary McCarthy.
At last, a film about intellectuals, their world of ideas, conflicting philosophies and strong friendships that keeps us riveted to the screen.