Hannah Arendt was a German philosopher who studied under Martin Heidegger and whose prolific body of work investigated topics like anti-Semitism, totalitarianism, and the problem of evil. Hannah Arendt is Margarethe von Tratta’s (Vision) biopic that depicts the controversy over the philosopher’s coverage of the Adolf Eichmann trial in 1962.
It’s important to distinguish the two Arendts, not only because this is a biopic and therefore encounters the potential problems of any narrativized summary of a person’s life, but because there’s a solid laundry list of reasons why there aren’t many biopics about professors – even the relatively famous ones. To Hannah Arendt’s credit, however, the life of the mind does make for some compelling drama. In fact, the film makes a strong and effective case for the urgent necessity of philosophy in the face of the most unconscionable tragedies of the 20th century.
Hannah Arendt’s first act covers Arendt’s decision to cover the Eichmann trial in Israel for The New Yorker, after Eichmann’s capture in Buenos Aires by Mossad agents. The film rather seamlessly integrates televised footage of the actual trial into its diegesis, aided by the fact that much of Arendt’s cataloging takes place while watching the trial on television. The actual trial, like so much historical information to have emerged from the Holocaust, is simultaneously fascinating and horrifying, especially when Eichmann describes his role in the routine extermination of people with procedural dispassion. It’s Eichmann’s rote lack of determined will that, for Arendt, contains the key to understanding systemic extermination, a phenomenon she would later famously deem “the banality of evil.”
The second half of the film covers the publication of her series of essays, which were later collected as a book titled Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Where Arendt was sent off to Israel with cheers from her colleagues in the face of an opportunity to witness history, her interpretation of Eichmann as a complicit but willfully ignorant functionary coupled with her criticism of certain facets of Jewish leadership (like Chaim Rumkowski) motivated fiery reactions well outside the ivory walls of the academe. Arendt becomes publicly labeled a Nazi sympathizer, receives written death threats directly to her door, and is rejected by some of her closest friends.
Contributing this primary storyline is a series of flashbacks that cover Arendt’s years in graduate school under the advisement of the existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger (Klaus Pohl), who eventually became a member of the Nazi party. As portrayed here, Heidegger’s role as Arendt’s intellectual muse extends to her sexual desires. Her romance with Heidegger is contextualized with an observation from the young Arendt (Freiderike Becht) that she doesn’t see thinking as coldly rational and passion as distinctly irrational; instead, she is impassioned by (and realizes her humanity through) thought.
Arendt’s complicated past with Heidegger (she is routinely shamed by colleagues, in part, for retroactively sleeping with the enemy) no doubt informs her ability to see evil as a rationalizing process rather than an essential phantom force. And Arendt, as masterfully portrayed here by von Trotta collaborator Barbara Sukowa, vigorously performs her approach to impassioned thought as the key to humanity. I’m not sure if Arendt’s actual lectures were ever so lively, but Sukowa’s explanations of the assembly line production of evil forever rid any generalizing assumptions of the potential incompatibility between an academic lecture and cinematic storytelling. She’s positively magnetic every time she speaks onscreen.
I wish I could say the same for the rest of the cast. Hannah Arendt’s bit players demonstrate the worst tendencies of the biopic (even if this film continues the welcome trend of focused cinematic biographies). “Characters” act as stand-ins for entire positions and schools of thought; the journalists of The New Yorker, rosy-eyed students of The New School, and anti-intellectual stand-ins recite their lines as if it’s the first time they’ve been read; and actors in supporting roles telegraph the controversies surrounding Arendt’s personality as if they were attempting to literally touch the viewer’s nose. I’m sure somebody at one point said aloud, “Oh, there goes that Hannah Arendt,” but that doesn’t make it come across any more convincing onscreen.
Aside from her longtime colleague Hans Jonas (Ulrich Noethen), all of the characters who critique Arendt are staged as assumed foils whose reservations are inevitably proven wrong. This is a lazy approach to a biopic about a critical thinker. Given, the extent of Arendt’s ten-page critique of the roles of Jewish leaders in the Holocaust isn’t replicable within the conventions of narrative filmmaking, especially within a genre as rigid as the biopic (and, of course, a film like this should never be a substitute for its subject’s actual work). However, we’re only provided a few lines from this section, an interesting but abbreviated verbal justification regarding a “state in between resistance and cooperation,” and almost zero legitimized voices of dissent from her peers. Arendt’s arguments about the Holocaust included groundbreaking insights that have traveled with us throughout the history of our understanding of one of the greatest atrocities the world has ever witnessed, and Arendt is a more-than-worthy subject for a biopic. But a movie about such a brilliant woman would have been smarter not to stage a battle of ideas as a predetermined victory.
The Upside: An engrossing portrayal of difficult and fascinating ideas about a difficult and fascinating subject; anchored with a compelling central performance by Sukowa; the Eichmann footage alone is something that absolutely should be seen; the philosophy is effectively and dramatically mirrored in the central character and the film’s drama
The Downside: Inexplicably terrible performance from the supporting cast, including Janet McTeer; the film falls victim to the clichés of the biopic, which is particularly unfortunate considering this is a film about a woman who challenged conventions of thought
On the Side: Walter Benjamin, Arendt’s close friend while they were both in exile in France during the late 1930s, was a German-Jewish philosopher whose tragic history is equally worthy of the biopic treatment. Just throwing that out there for all you German movie studio heads who are reading this.
Hannah Arendt is currently playing in limited release in New York.