Like Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt has an all-encompassing biopic title, but focuses on one key moment of its subject’s life. In 1961, the German thinker and writer Hannah Arendt (Barbara Sukowa) went to Jerusalem to cover, for The New Yorker, the trial of Adolf Eichmann. It was a chance to get up close to the horrors of her past; as a young woman, she had been held in a camp in France. After escaping, she came to the United States, reunited with her husband, Heinrich Blücher (Axel Milberg) and, after a decade, published the influential book The Origins of Totalitarianism.
This is, of necessity, a rushed summary of Arendt’s early years, which could make for a film just as interesting as Hannah Arendt. Von Trotta (whose other cinematic subjects include Hildegard von Bingen and Rosa Luxemburg) assumes a certain level of familiarity with Arendt and her work, but you can certainly pick up the details as you go along. You’ll just have to be patient through the first third, which mainly fleshes out Arendt and Blücher’s life as New York intellectuals of the 1960s — here seen as a life of cigarettes and cocktail parties, professorial positions and friendly sparring that occasionally gets just a bit ugly, though never where Arendt’s friendship with the novelist Mary McCarthy (played by a tart and wonderful Janet McTeer) is concerned.
Hannah Arendt’s greatest challenge is to make cinematically interesting the life of the mind, to show us Arendt as she conceives and writes her New Yorker pieces (later published as Eichmann in Jerusalem) without resorting to a static montage of the writer at work. Von Trotta uses footage from Eichmann’s trial, interspersed with scenes focusing on Sukowa’s expressive face, to make vivid what Arendt saw; the director weaves in testimony from the trial without fully recreating it, giving us careful glimpses.
Once Arendt’s piece was published, all hell broke loose: Friends denounced Arendt, strangers sent death threats and New York intellectuals could talk of nothing else. Part of Arendt’s controversial thesis was the idea that evil can be done by ordinary people, “joiners” who fail to think for themselves and are “terribly and terrifyingly normal.” Arendt wrote that some Jewish councils were complicit in the death of their people — an idea which enraged many and led to accusations that Arendt was a self-hating Jew. (For a fascinating take on Eichmann, see this piece in The New York Times’ Opinionator blog: wkly.ws/1ig.)
Though von Trotta’s film centers on this particular moment in Arendt’s life, giving voice to Arendt and her critics (who tend to speak in a distractingly clipped, theatrical style), it isn’t about whether Arendt’s ideas were entirely right or wrong. Hannah Arendt gradually builds a broader portrait of its subject and of the tenuous position of a woman intellectual. Arendt is frequently referred to as arrogant, lacking feelings, but her personal life, with her husband and a group of close friends, is affectionate and full of love. Von Trotta isn’t trying to soften Arendt’s sharp edges, but to present her as a complete person, with complexities and flaws. If the screenplay is occasionally stiff, the lighting too cozily burnished, Sukowa nearly vibrates at the center of each scene, knotting together Arendt’s passion and brilliance even in the smallest moments. Thoughtful, fierce and imperfect, Hannah Arendt runs a bit long, but is an inspiring slice of history that might just convince you to go out and read one of its subject’s books.
HANNAH ARENDT: Directed by Margarethe von Trotta. Screenplay by von Trotta and Pam Katz. Cinematography, Caroline Champetier. Editor, Bettina Böhler. Music, André Mergenthaler. Starring Barbara Sukowa, Janet McTeer and Axel Milberg. Zeitgeist Films, 2013. 113 minutes. Not rated. Three and a half stars.