The sheer existence of Hannah Arendt seems like kind of a miracle, as if the filmmaking era of the 1970s and '80s suddenly came back to life.
The director is the great German feminist filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta, whose career began in the 1960s, when she acted in films by the enfant terrible Rainer Werner Fassbinder. She moved quickly into writing and directing, and two of her signature films concerned controversial women: The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, a fictitious story of a woman caught up in a public political scandal, and Rosa Luxemburg, her 1986 film about the Polish-German Jewish revolutionary who was murdered in 1919. Von Trotta received a Palme d'Or nomination at Cannes for the latter, which starred Barbara Sukowa (who won Best Actress at Cannes) in the title role.
Three decades later, it's like no time at all has elapsed. Now in her 70s, von Trotta is back with another depiction of a 20th-century moral and philosophical drama, and Sukowa once again is her star. This time, her protagonist is Hannah Arendt, a German Jewish political thinker and writer. Arendt, whose great subject was power and totalitarianism, is one of the more polarizing figures of the post-World War II intellectual scene, and von Trotta's film sets out to understand why.
Despite the biographical sweep promised by the title, von Trotta eschews the traditional biopic tendency of hitting the highlights of the subject's lifetime. Instead, the focus is on a single historical event, the 1961 trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Israel. On assignment for The New Yorker (back in the William Shawn era when serious arguments were aired in its pages), Arendt attended part of the trial and reviewed the transcript. The resulting series of stories was turned into a book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, and yielded the buzz-phrase for which Arendt is best known: "the banality of evil."
Arendt arrived at this coinage after examining the behavior and testimony of a man who claimed he was only following orders as he oversaw the smooth movement of trains in Nazi-occupied Poland. She observed the bland, bureaucratic language he used and resolved to examine the gulf "between the unspeakable horror of the deeds and the mediocrity of the man," as she put it to one of her increasingly concerned friends, who feared she was being seduced by Eichmann's arguments.
But it wasn't her inquiries into the banality of evil that ignited the shitstorm that erupted upon The New Yorker's publication of her essays. Instead, it was her contention that Jewish leaders themselves were partly to blame for the scale of the Holocaust. Unsurprisingly, she lost longtime friends over this.
Arendt, as the film tells us, was a complicated and perhaps not entirely trustworthy messenger. She was a German Jew; in Germany before the war, Jews were relatively assimilated into mainstream culture, a status that set her apart from the Jews of Eastern Europe who bore the brunt of the Holocaust. Notoriously, she'd had a pre-war affair with her mentor Martin Heidegger, the German philosopher who cast his lot, and legacy, with the Nazis.
It's to the considerable credit of this film that such a difficult intellectual figure is depicted in a fair and coherent way, without undue reductiveness. Perhaps unavoidably, there's a talky woodenness to the execution that makes it unlikely to draw much interest from people unfamiliar with the subject. That said, the actors are lively and invested in the spirit of political passion and argumentation—Janet McTeer is particularly welcome playing journalist Mary McCarthy, a loyal friend and tart-tongued kindred spirit. Sukowa, too, manages to find tenderness and vulnerability in the title role, aided immensely by the good-humored, trusting presence of Axel Milberg as Heinrich Blücher, Arendt's husband, as well as scenes in Israel with a dear and gentle Zionist friend who finally turns away from Arendt.
But for all the high stakes of these arguments among friends, von Trotta never lets us forget that they were often shy, rumpled intellectuals who lived among towers of books and manuscripts, and who often drank and smoked too much as they debated the state of the world as if their lives depended on it.
Correction: This article originally stated that Margarethe von Trotta won the Palme d'Or for Rosa Luxemburg. The film was nominated for the Palme d'Or.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Arguing the world."