Tag Archives: B+

HANNAH ARENDT

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B+

If the notion of a film of ideas scares you, it would be best to avoid Margarethe von Trotta’s “Hannah Arendt,” a picture filled with philosophical arguments about the nature of evil that fails to include a single car chase or fistfight. To be sure, there’s conflict here, but it’s in the form of intellectual debate rather than physical violence.

That’s true, at least, in terms of the action actually covered by the script. There’s plenty of brutality in the background to it—the Holocaust. The film begins with a brief scene depicting the 1960 capture of Adolf Eichmann, one of the chief organizers of the transport of Jews to the Nazi death camps, by Israeli agents in Argentina in 1960. But it immediately shifts to the halls of the New School in New York, where Arendt, a philosopher and political theorist who had fled Germany for America in 1940, is teaching, and to the apartment where she lives with her husband Heinrich Blucher (Axel Milberg) and hosts disputative cocktail parties with fellow intellectuals like acerbic Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer).

But on learning of Eichmann’s capture and Israel’s intention to put him on trial, Arendt, whose interest in the mechanism of government control had already been demonstrated in her work on totalitarianism, hatches the idea of going to Jerusalem and covering the proceedings. Her proposal is quickly accepted by New Yorker editor William Shawn (Nicholas Woodeson) despite the misgivings of Blucher, who has already expressed doubts about the legality of the Israeli action in capturing Eichmann, to the consternation of many of their friends. But Arendt, who remains troubled by the actions of her mentor and former lover Martin Heidegger (Klaus Pohl), who joined the Nazi party and expressed no remorse for doing so after the war—and who’s glimpsed here in flashback—is driven to confront the face of supreme evil personally.

What she finds, however, is something unexpected and disturbing. Eichmann, who is shown here in black-and-white news footage from the trial, comes across not as a Satanic monster, but as a drearily ordinary fellow who abandoned his moral judgment and simply did as he was told by those above him in the Nazi hierarchy. It’s the attempt to explain him, and others like him, that led Arendt to coin the phrase “the banality of evil” in the magazine articles that later became the book “Eichmann in Jerusalem.” That argument, and her observation that obtuse European Jewish leaders bore some measure of responsibility for the fate that befell their communities, brought swift and angry rejoinders from many of her colleagues, as well as journalists and ordinary readers. She was asked to resign her position, rejected by some of her closest friends (though McCarthy offered a spirited defense), and charged by many fellow Jews with blaming the victims of the Holocaust for what had befallen them. In the final scene of the film, she responds to the criticism before a crowded student assembly on the New School campus.

There are a few moments in “Hannah Arendt” that approach “thriller” convention. At one point, as Arendt is ruminating about the controversy she’s caused as she walks along on a remote rural roadway, she’s startled by an approaching car—a scene that recalls the opening scene of Eichmann’s abduction. But the danger is defused by conversation rather than force. That pattern recurs repeatedly in the film, which prizes spirited debate over physical confrontation and brains over brawn. To be sure, it demonstrates that it’s as difficult to portray thinking on camera as it is to suggest artistic creativity. Shots of Arendt sitting on a couch deep in thought, smoking a cigarette, and then suddenly jumping up to express herself on a clattery old typewriter, are as incomplete as ones of a painter brooding over an empty canvas and then lunging for his brushes.

But it’s refreshing to watch a film that actually attempts to capture the give and take of real intellectual discourse, and to show the seriousness with which some approach a debate in which abstract ideas have to contend with practical political realities. (Even Shawn and his staff at the New Yorker, hardly an unsophisticated lot, find it difficult to deal with Arendt’s essentially philosophical mind.) By concentrating on this single episode set in the rarefied atmosphere of sixties East Coast academia, von Trotta engages fundamental ethical issues not only about culpability for the Holocaust, but about the responsibility of teachers and scholars to put themselves on the line in the name of truth. And she manages this brilliantly—as Arendt did—in the long final sequence in the New School lecture hall.

That sequence represents the culmination of a subtle, nuanced performance by Barbara Sukowa, who conveys the intensity simmering beneath Arendt’s apparently placid exterior and keeps her occasional outbursts within proper bounds. The rest of the cast is admirable but distinctly secondary, though Milberg captures Blucher’s combination of support and strength and McTeer is a hoot as the outspoken McCarthy, always ready with a typical zinger. The sense of period detail is excellent in Volker Schaefer’s production design, Anja Fromm’s art direction, Petra Klimek’s set decoration and Frauke Firl’s costume design, while Caroline Champetier’s cinematography gives everything off a hazy, dreamlike quality that seems entirely right and Bettina Bohler’s editing keeps to a measured pace that gives the performances time to breathe and viewers the opportunity to think about what they’re seeing.

“Hannah Arendt” isn’t a crowd-pleaser, and some will find it tedious. But for those who value the life of the mind and the responsibility of the public intellectual, it’s an engrossing—indeed important—film.

THE HUNT (JAGTEN)

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B+

The devastating impact of a child’s false accusation of sexual misconduct against an adult and the veil it rips from the façade of genial small-town life are the subjects of Thomas Vinterberg’s “The Hunt,” which he co-wrote with Tobias Lindholm. In it, Mads Mikkelsen plays Lucas, a divorced man who, down on his luck, has taken a job working at a pre-school run by Grethe (Susse Wold). Though hardly a genial-looking fellow, he’s a big hit with the kids, roughhousing with the boys to their delight. His co-worker Nadja (Alexandra Rapaport) also takes a liking to him despite his shyness, and his adolescent son Marcus (Lasse Folgestrom) could well be moving from his mother’s place back to his dad’s.

Lucas’ warmth and kindness also appeal to little Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), the daughter of his best friend Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen), a big, bearlike man with whom he goes deer hunting and, along with other men in the town, engages in other macho outdoor activities. Since Theo and his wife (Anne Louise Hassing) often fight and ignore her, Klara latches onto the familiar Lucas, who often walks her to and from school and lets her cavort with his dog. But when she impulsively kisses him during a playtime at the school and he gently suggests it wasn’t the right thing to do, she reacts with a child’s intensity. Apparently prompted by something pornographic she’s seen on her older brother’s tablet, she mutters a childish attack on Lucas, and though she’s too young even to understand what she’s saying, Gerthe takes the mumbled words to mean that Lucas had exposed himself to her. When pressed the girl agrees to whatever the grown-up authorities suggest to her, and even when she says that Lucas hadn’t done anything at all and what she said was just silliness, the adults—including her mother—chalk the recantation up to a kid’s repression of unpleasant memories.

Soon Lucas is fired and comes under police investigation. With the sole exception of one man, Marcus’ godfather Brunn (Lars Ranthe), all the townspeople turn against him, and even Nadja has doubts. When he tries to buy groceries at the local supermarket, he’s told he’s unwelcome, and when he protests he’s beaten. And though Marcus stands by him, when the boy tries to confront Klara he’s attacked too, and he and Lucas suffer an even more physically and psychologically brutal assault when they’re talking together in Lucas’ house.

“The Hunt” tackles a subject that’s not terribly new. The notion of adult lives disrupted by a child’s accusations recalls Lillian Hellman’s 1934 play “The Children’s Hour,” and the often horrendous reaction to charges of pedophilia has been treated in other recent films. The revelation of the darkness found at the heart of an apparently idyllic community has been dealt with repeatedly as well, in films like Clouzot’s “Le Corbeau.” What sets this one apart is the extraordinary performance of Mikkelsen, often cast as a villain (as in the title role of the current NBC series “Hannibal”) but here embodying the pathos of a man who simply cannot comprehend what’s happening to him or, despite everything he endures, hate those who so easily assume his guilt. (The film doesn’t explicitly address this pattern in adults, but it’s well-documented. One need only think of the cases involving false charges of Satanic abuse that occurred in this country not so long ago.) The actor is aided immeasurably by Vinterberg’s intense yet naturalistic approach; the director, working with cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen and editors Anna Osterud and Janus Billeskov Jansen, brings a controlled urgency to the story that underscores Lucas’ dazed reaction to his ordeal and makes his occasional outbursts of rage all the more comprehensible and powerful. The other adults in the cast acquit themselves well too, but it’s the performances of the youngsters—the wonderfully unforced Wedderkopp and the anxious, angry Fogelstrom—that stand out beside Mikkelsen’s.

The picture does falter toward the close. A dramatic confrontation at the town’s Christmas Eve church celebration is a trifle pat, even though Mikkelsen’s playing of it is wrenching. Even worse is a dreamlike coda involving Marcus’ initiation as a rifle-toting man going out on his first hunt, which also sees a reconciliation of sorts between Lucas and Klara, still uncomprehending about the tragedy her actions have caused. But the visually gauzy, and frankly unexplained, re-establishment of the community’s equilibrium shatters the grimly authentic tone of what’s gone before, and it’s not really redeemed by the sudden reappearance of what lies beneath the ostensibly placid surface at the very close.

Nonetheless, up to that point “The Hunt” is a strong, moving portrait of a man shunned by the only society he knows for reasons he can’t understand, marked by a stunning lead performance from Mikkelsen.