Review of Margarethe Von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt

Reviewed by Ruth Novaczek

Hannah Arendt (2012) France/ Germany/ Luxembourg, 113 minutes. Directed by Margarethe Von Trotta.  Starring: Barbara Sukowa, Alex Milberg, Janet McTeer, Julia Jentsch, and Ulrich Noeten.

A longtime fan of both Margarethe Von Trotta and Hannah Arendt I eagerly anticipated the release of a film which would portray this major figure in as vivid a manner as the portrait of Rosa Luxemburg by the same director. While I was slightly wary of the wisdom of casting Barbara Sukowa as Arendt, I believed the actor and the director would do justice to their subject, but after watching the film I remained disappointed and unconvinced.

While Sukowa is a serious actor and she plays Arendt with thoughtful interiority, imitating her swagger and chain-smoking with some aplomb, she doesn’t look remotely Jewish and her voice lacks Arendt’s throaty tone. In his 1984 film A Man Like Eva, Radu Gabrea cast Eva Mattes as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and despite the gender crossover, Mattes fully inhabited Fassbinder’s swaggering roughness and his brutal focus, and I expected something of this engagement from Sukowa as Arendt. Von Trotta claims she didn’t want verisimilitude from the performance, but had worked with Sukowa over many years and believed she was right for the role. I’m inclined to disagree. It is true, biopics are hard to cast, but the audience still has to believe in the performance. Perhaps it is the script that lets the performance down? Co-written by Von Trotta and American screenwriter Pam Katz, there is a heavy, literal quality to the text, which is almost laughable at times. Von Trotta has been working in television for some time now and I wonder if the film might have worked better as a miniseries detailing Arendt’s report on the Eichmann trial, which is the focal point of the film.

The film uses the biopic genre as a vehicle for Arendt’s notion of “the banality of evil” and the conflicts surrounding her coverage in The New Yorker of the Eichmann trial. Eichmann had been captured by Israeli agents in Argentina, and brought to trial in Israel, indicted on 15 criminal charges, including crimes against humanity, war crimes, and crimes against the Jewish people. Yet Hannah Arendt, a political theorist, as she chose to call herself, is not really the subject of Von Trotta’s film. Cleverly, the monochrome archive footage from the trial is cut into scenes of Arendt in Jerusalem, and we see the real moments that led her to make her radical statements in The New Yorker that so shocked the world, and this is Von Trotta’s point, it seems. Arendt broke many taboos around Holocaust representation at the time by arguing that Eichmann was simply a banal character, and the furore with which her report was received, and her response to what amounted to a political scandal, is at the heart of the film. While Eichmann seemed ordinary or banal to Arendt, he was still a monster to his victims.  Von Trotta  presents this fraught debate in New York and Israel via dialogue-driven scenes which serve as an exposition of Arendt’s complex arguments. Shot very proficiently on RED by cinematographer Caroline Champetier, there are convincing moments among the scripted clichés, particularly where Arendt in the press room, and Eichmann on trial are intercut. Even more dramatically, a Warsaw ghetto leader on the witness stand is confronted by a survivor in the courtroom, and by contextualising the Eichmann trial footage, Von Trotta powerfully illustrates her slightly fragmented, yet didactic, point. Arendt fought for truth over sentimentality, rationality over nationalist fervour, and integrity above all.

Her friendship with Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer) is sketched in episodic moments in Arendt’s Manhattan apartment, as are her other New York relationships with New Yorker editor William Shawn (Nicholas Woodeson looking uncannily like Benjamin Netanyahu), her assistant Lotte Kohler (Julia Jentsch), and her husband Heinrich Blucher (Axel Milberg). The narrative jumps between New York and Jerusalem, past and present, flashbacks of the young Hannah with her former teacher Martin Heidegger fill the gaps in this rather unruly tapestry. These leaps don’t make for filmic articulacy. As he states in his New Yorker review of the film, Richard Brody isn’t convinced either, not by Arendt’s smoking, nor by her ostensible thinking, where she gazes from windows or across rooms. Brody writes, “The movie’s sanctimonious depiction of ‘thinking’ as something greater than what the regular run of people do is one of the signs of its artistic failure.” He puts this down to the lack of small gestures to describe life’s vastness, so common in cinema. It was not only Eichmann’s supposed banality that outraged Arendt’s critics, but her critique of Jewish complicity in genocide. Brody notes that Hannah Arendt was released at the same time as Claude Lanzmann’s documentary, The Last of the Unjust which interrogates the so-called collaboration between Jewish leaders and the Nazis. In Lanzmann’s film, he contends that the Jews could not have collaborated because they didn’t share the Nazi’s ideology, and that the ghetto leaders were not therefore, complicit.

The many characters, arguments, and locations in the film require more breadth and breathing space, and had Arendt been a mini-series the complexity of relationships and debates might have had room to air. A Franco-German co-production, with Israeli and European funding, the film is a vast project that seems to have lost its power, caught between the portrayal of a major figure and the political details of the Eichmann trial.

The real Arendt can be seen in numerous TV interviews from the 60s and 70s, which can be found online, and her force of character and voice are particular—her original report is long, dense, and difficult. The Eichmann trial—in the wake of the not-so- distant Nuremberg trials, weighs up many post-holocaust debates that are still unresolved today.  For Arendt, as a teacher and political theorist, and as a refugee herself, these debates were seriously and deeply considered. The following quote from Eichmann in Jerusalem offers a sense of the nature of Arendt’s political philosophy, which Von Trotta attempts to present to a 21st century public, “I have mentioned before the Nuremberg Charter’s definition of ‘crimes against humanity’ as ‘inhuman acts’… as though the Nazis had simply been lacking in human kindness, certainly the understatement of the century.” This last sentence shows Arendt as possessing a dark humour that is missing from Von Trotta’s film and Sukowa’s performance. Arendt’s texts weigh up the position of an Israeli court confronting a judgement that couldn’t have been otherwise. Offering various scenarios in terms of legal options, she concludes, ‘Just as you [Eichmann] supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations—as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world—we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang.”

While Arendt’s position is clear from her many writings, Von Trotta’s film doesn’t clarify her protagonist’s struggle for justice and understanding, the density of characters, script, and structure seem concerned with illustrating the tagline, which reads, “The woman who saw banality in evil,” and, really, her story is much more complex. It is indeed the small details that map a life in cinematic terms, and these details were crushed by a literal and at times, wooden, interpretation. But at a time when feature films have so many commercial demands to fulfill, and given that Arendt is of interest to intellectuals who have read some of her work, Von Trotta has attempted to describe and portray a crucial political figure. If Sukowa played Rosa Luxemburg convincingly in Von Trotta’s 1986 biopic, could it be that conditions now make this kind of portrait an obstacle course in balancing the popular and the intellectual, where complex stories like Arendt’s must suffer in a feature-length time- slot with multiple funders?

To learn more about Hannah Arendt, click here.

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