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.