Arts & Events

New: Film Review: Hannah Arendt: A Vivid, Honest, Unflinching Portrait
Shattuck Landmark Berkeley

Reviewed by Gar Smith
Saturday August 03, 2013 - 03:59:00 PM

If your knowledge of Hannah Arendt is limited to her memorable phrase, "the banality of evil," director Margarethe von Trotta's latest character-study-in-courage offers an illuminating profile of the remarkable human being behind the indelible words. 

Von Trotta's film begins with a troubling and inexplicable image. The lights of a bus approach out of a black night. A passenger disembarks and begins to make his way down a road, holding a flashlight to pierce the darkness. Suddenly, a truck approaches and breaks to a stop. The unidentified individual is attacked and hauled off screaming, his flashlight left behind to throw a small cone of light over the ground. 

Was this a random act of violence against an innocent Jew? We don't know: the identities of the attackers and victims remain a mystery. Sometimes, the human mind can penetrate the darkness; sometimes, history remains unaccountable. 

But watch what von Trotta does next. The image of the dying flashlight is replaced by the glow of a match in a dark room. As the light builds, we see the profile of Hannah Arendt, lighting a cigarette. The message seems to be: the torch has been passed -- Arendt is alive and thinking and people will be held accountable. 

In addition to being a philosopher, Arendt also was a practical thinker who foresaw the inherent dangers of Hitler's rise. After escaping Gestapo detention, she fled into exile at the age of 19. An intellectual possessed with a passionate soul, Arendt dove into a mad affair with one of her teachers, philosopher Martin Heidegger. (It was a wrenching experience for Arendt when Heidegger subsequently joined the Nazi party in 1933.) 

After escaping a notorious detention camp, Arendt found her way to the US and a new life in New York where she established herself as an author and an academic. 

Award-winning singer-and-actress Barbara Sukowa excels as Arendt, capturing her intellectual rigor, her social and emotional rhythms, her frisky sensuality and her endless consumption of tobacco. Wreathed in warm light and tobacco smoke, the home life of Hannah and her husband, Heinrich Blücher (Axel Milberg), is alive with comfortable flirtations (she calls him "Schtups"). The occasional, good-humored butt-slaps of a long-married but loving couple only add to the charm of this portrayal. 

Of course, this is not simply a story about love and adaptation. Arendt's tale involves the collision of moral principles with historic realities. For Arendt, this moral quandary took physical form in the person of Adolf Eichmann. (Eichmann, charged with responsibility for shipping German Jews to death camps, had been spirited out of Germany by Catholic monks – even receiving a passport, courtesy of the Vatican. He lived in exile in South America until his capture by Israel's Mossad in 1960.) 

Dispatched to Israel in 1961 to cover Eichmann's trial for The New Yorker, Arendt became puzzled that this man, presented as a personification of evil, turned out to be such a nonentity. Eichmann, a high school dropout who, in Von Trotta's words, "was unable to formulate a single grammatically correct sentence," was more nebbish than nefarious – a bureaucrat incapable of thinking outside-the-box. In German, the word is Gedankenlosigkeit

Von Trotta's film incorporates the actual black-and-white footage of Eichmann's uncomfortable, nervous testimony in the dock at his trial. These scenes cpould be seamlessly incorporated into the film because Arendt (who refused to swap her cigarettes for a seat in the courtroom), was compelled to watch the proceedings via TV, as they were broadcast into a nearby pressroom crowded with reporters. 

Arendt's analysis was probing and extensive. If Wallace Shawn, her sometimes frustrated New Yorker editor, thought he was getting a single, concise feature story, he was mistaken. Arendt insisted on keeping her own schedule and, in the end, produced a report that required serialization in the pages of five separate issues of the magazine. 

Arendt's outlier findings troubled her editors at the New Yorker but they bravely went ahead and published her report. As expected, her argument that Eichmann was no more inherently dangerous than the average unthinking desk-holder raised anger in many circles. But it was her refusal to gloss over the role of Jews who became complicit enablers of the Nazis that triggered a greater fury – one that threatened to consume Arendt and end her career. 

Von Trotta's film depicts the harrowing personal fallout from Arendt's uncompromising reporting. Even Arendt did not anticipate the force of the fury that would be arrayed against her. Shunned by some of her closest friends, threatened by her supervisors, attacked by her academic peers, and subjected to death threats, Arendt was forced into yet another exile, finding some token of peace and security in the safety of a remote cabin. Even there, she was not beyond the reach of Israeli secret agents who once accosted her as she walked along a woodside road. 

Van Trotta's depiction of academic life is superb (complete with conversations bouncing back-and-forth between English and German and an appearance by an actor standing in for the preening pro-Zionist scholar, Norman Podhoretz). Arendt's inner struggle finds articulation in her conversations with fellow academic and author Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer), who was also subjected to scathing public attacks after the publication of her novel, The Group

The press notes include McCarthy's New York Review of Books essay, which was published following Arendt's death. It includes the following description: "She was a beautiful woman, alluring, seductive, feminine…. Above all, her eyes, so brilliant and sparkling, starry when she was happy or excited, but also deep, dark, remote, pools of inwardness. There was something unfathomable in Hannah that seemed to lie in the reflective depths of those eyes." 

Sukowa captures these elements of Arendt's essence in a powerful and moving performance that concludes with a bravura, uninterrupted eight-minute speech in which Arendt, standing alone at a classroom podium, lights a cigarette, takes a defiant puff, and faces down her critics – once and for all. 

This film treatment of Arendt's life benefits from the fact that Von Trotta and co-writer Pam Katz, were able to spend time interviewing many people who knew Arendt intimately, both as a friend and colleague. 

"There was more than a touch of the great actress in Hannah," Von Trotta reminisces. "She was incapable of feigning." And, where Eichmann was maleable, Arendt was adamantine. "No one has the right to obey," she once insisted. 

Arendt was a woman who followed her intellectual curiosity. She never was one to follow orders. 

Director Margarethe von Trotta and Barbara Sukowa discuss the film