Hannah Arendt

March 15, 2014
Barbara Sukowa stars as the eponymous German writer and philosopher in 'Hannah Arendt'.
Barbara Sukowa stars as the eponymous German writer and philosopher in 'Hannah Arendt'.

The jollities and distortions of The Monuments Men would not have impressed Hannah Arendt, the German-Jewish intellectual who wrote an impressively forensic account of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, whom some describe as the architect of the Final Solution. Neither would they go down well with Margarethe von Trotta, who has made a long line of deeply serious, deeply feminist movies about German politics and interpersonal relationships, starting with The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (1975) co-directed with her then-husband, Volker Schlöndorff.

Von Totta’s typically spare bio-pic of Hannah Arendt (1906-75) concentrates on a brief, dramatic period of the writer’s life, when she flew to Jerusalem in 1961 to attend the trial of the Nazi bureaucrat, and report for The New Yorker. The account, serialised in the magazine then published as the book, Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), was a sensation, as Arendt refused to accept the ideological claims of the Israeli government of David Ben-Gurion that had kidnapped Eichmann in Argentina and brought him to trial.

She found this show trial, of dubious legality, did not help explain anti-Semitism. Instead, she analysed the hypocrisy of the Israelis, and the terminal mediocrity of the defendant. Watching Eichmann in the dock, she coined the famous phrase, “the banality of evll”. Back home in New York, her unwillingness to take the easy, propagandistic line generated enormous hostility. She received death threats and a mountain of hate mail. She was spurned by friends and colleagues, and villified in the press.

Her detractors were not simply one-eyed fanatics. Many of her intellectual peers felt she was too willing to treat Eichmann as a buffoon, while apportioning blame to the victims who are portrayed as being complicit in their own extermination. Then, and today, the Holocaust is not a subject that allows for fine discriminations in determining guilt.

Today we know a little more about Eichmann and the consensus is that he was a more responsible figure than Arendt believed. Yet the arguments still rage about the role of ordinary Germans in the Holocaust and the reasons the Jews were seemingly so co-operative with their executioners. Many of these arguments are rehearsed in Hannah Arendt, a film filled with ideas and intelligent conversation. The overall impression we take away is of Arendt as a martyr to the truth – a woman of unflinching honesty whose views have now been vindicated.

The reality is that some of her views have been vindicated and others refuted. Von Trotta’s position is influenced by her obvious admiration of Arendt, whom she portrays in a warm, human manner. Much of the film is about Arendt’s relationships with figures such as her husband Heinrich Blücher (Axel Milberg); her friend, Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer); and colleague, Hans Jonas (Ulrich Noethen). We even have ambiguous flashbacks to her student days, when she was the mistress of Martin Heidegger, the great philosopher forever tainted by his involvement with the Nazis.

Barbara Sukowa gives a convincing performance in the lead role, constantly puffing away on cigarettes and poring over papers. How else does one portray thinking or writing? Her Arendt is a tough cookie with a compassionate soul. It’s a plausible portrait which suggests Arendt had a touch of intellectual arrogance that would not allow her to be diverted from the course she had chosen.

In one scene Arendt is confronted by Mossad agents on a lonely road, who ask her not to continue with her account. Had George Clooney been directing, she would have floored her antagonists with a few karate kicks and fled in a hail of gun fire. For von Trotta it’s enough that they have a chat.

It’s clear that Von Trotta is holding Arendt up as a model of fearless conviction rarely found in academic circles today. Arendt’s account of the Eichmann trial threatened her reputation and her university job. It placed her marriage and her friendships under strain, and made her the target of mindless hostility. It’s a long way from the bloodless battles fought by deconstructionists and pop culture theorists. She would diagnose our present situation as a world in which banality has become its own form of evil.

Hannah Arendt
Germany, Israel, Luxembourg, France; rated PG
114 mins
Directed by Margarethe Von Trotta; screenplay by Pam Katz & Margarethe von Trotta; starring Barbara Sukowa, Axel Milberg, Janet McTeer, Julia Jentsch, Ulrich Noethen

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 15 March, 2014.