Hannah Arendt

Directed by Margarethe von Trotta, written by Pam Katz and Margarethe von Trotta, released 2012.


What a challenge this movie must have been to make for German filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta. Start with the subject: a writer, an intellectual, a bonafide egghead with an accent to boot. A writer is not necessarily the kiss of death for a movie if sufficiently eccentric or self-dramatizing (think Truman Capote), but in Hannah Arendt we have a chain-smoking, hardworking, no-nonsense, middle-aged German scholar with books like The Origins of Modern Totalitarianism and The Human Condition under her belt. If that isn’t enough to scare off even the most earnest filmmaker, I don’t know what is.

Other things that this movie has going against it include:

  • Lots of German dialog, requiring English subtitles, although this is nicely balanced by the authentic German accents of the various characters’ English, something we don’t hear very often in English-language movies.
  • The problem that isn’t a problem in a novel or written biography: namely, that much of the magic takes place out of sight in the writer’s mind.
  • And finally, the cultural and historical events that swirl around the characters, all those things that are so unfamiliar to many of us. Quick: what happened between JFK’s election and assassination? (Blank, Bay of Pigs, blank, Cuban missile crisis, blank.)

Fortunately we have Barbara Sukowa’s Arendt at the center of the movie, rarely off-screen, always wondrous to gaze at, her cigarette addiction both a little frightening and comical at the same time, an inspiring and charismatic teacher, it would seem, if the scenes with her students are any guide.

Happily, von Trotta largely confines the film to the early 60s. Unhappily, she attempts to summon bits of Arendt’s relationship with the philosopher Martin Heidegger, her mentor and lover in the late 20s and early 30s. This is done as awkward flashbacks that feel artless and stagey compared to the naturalistic scenes of the main narrative in 60s New York.

Other scenes are also a little clumsy. The reactions of critics and fellow faculty members to Arendt’s writings are vital to our understanding of Arendt’s stubborn, determined nature, but these men are mostly presented as a kind of bitchy chorus — whether this is due to poor casting or uncertain direction, I can’t tell.

More agreeable are the scenes with Arendt’s good friend, American novelist Mary McCarthy. These are mostly delicious and play better to von Trotta’s natural strengths as a director. Her early films often portrayed sisters and here we have odd-couple gal pals Arendt and McCarthy playing sisterly roles and it works wonderfully. A scene of them shooting pool in a nightclub feels almost anachronistic, yet it’s anchored in the past by the haze of cigarette smoke, the bottles of booze, the men in suits in the bar behind them: period filmmaking at its best.

The opening scene of the 1960 nighttime abduction of Adolf Eichmann in Argentina by Israeli agents has a dreamlike quality, as though sneaked in from a thriller. Beautifully lit and shot, we later discover a useful purpose of this scene: as a contrast to the actual black-and-white footage of Eichmann’s 1961 trial which von Trotta skillfully integrates into her movie (a smart decision to do this rather than trying to reenact it). Most of us have seen bits of Eichmann’s trial before, for example in episode 10 of the Inside the Nazi Hunters TV series, but here at last we have a satisfactory context for this footage: Arendt’s dawning realization during the trial (she covered it for The New Yorker) that there’s something else going on here that seemingly everyone has missed, that evil on an unimaginable scale can occur even under a mediocrity like Eichmann, who squints and grimaces and blows his nose as though he doesn’t even know he’s on trial for his life.

The English titles of two of von Trotta’s early films are The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (1975) and The Second Awakening of Christa Klages (1978), movies with memorable titles even if the films themselves are largely forgotten. In the spirit of these works one can almost be forgiven for thinking of this movie as The Important Discovery of Hannah Arendt. Biopic, historical drama, period piece, the movie also serves as an antidote to much of what we see on screen that passes for the world of the 60s. If Mad Men shows how the era’s images were created, Hannah Arendt shows how its words were made.


© 10 Franks 2015