An intelligent film on a subject of real importance is a rarity today. Only a few people were watching 'Hannah Arendt' when I saw it in one afternoon at the Greenwich Picture House.
Hannah Arendt, the great German-Jewish philosopher who spent the second half of her life in the United States, was preoccupied with how great and concentrated powers in government and other corporate entities disempower ordinary people and turn civil society into a wasteland, a process which reached its initial apotheosis under the totalitarian governments of the Nazis and Stalin's Russia.
Margarethe von Trotta's film is built around a single event: Arendt's articles in The New Yorker concerning the trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the chief operatives of the Holocaust. Among the several hundred pages of Arendt's report were a few passages that aroused intense hostility. First was the subtitle: `The Banality of Evil'. The banality of Eichmann's persona had surprised Arendt; she was expecting to witness a monster. Upon reflection, however, this banality seemed to her not surprising: a bureaucracy which gives itself over to an evil system must indeed be populated by such types; to look for Satanic monsters would be to mistake the systemic nature of the beast. Further, she observed that anti-Semitism and violence and helplessness had created a passivity in European Jews, to an extent that the Nazis were able to impose a Jewish leadership who cooperated with their plans.
Not surprisingly, given the traumatic after-effects of the Holocaust, there was a strong reaction to these passages and she was vilified by many prominent Jews. Her remarks were misinterpreted and opinions were allocated to her which she had never expressed. With hindsight, it might be observed that a little earlier in time the Soviets had exterminated the entire Polish Officer Corps, more than 20,000 highly-trained soldiers, in similar conditions and with a similar lack of resistance. The presence of the machine-gun and the debilitating effects of prolonged humiliation, helplessness and loss of independence, have a profound effect upon human behaviour.
Published works had already addressed these uncomfortable topics - Katzenelson's 'Song of the Murdered Jewish People' and Raul Hillberg's 'The Destruction of the European Jews' are two notable instances - but Arendt's narrative appeared in that respectable and public interface between the self-appointed `intelligent' tribes of America, The New Yorker.
The film, made by the German director Margarethe von Trotta, addresses these huge and weighty subjects with seriousness and integrity. It is absorbing - gripping, even - and anyone unfamiliar with the story will come away wanting to know more. Certain elements obscure at the beginning become familiar to the viewer as the film progresses. I say: see it. The criticisms which follow are addenda.
First criticism: Arendt extended her observations on totalitarianism to include our modern Western world, with its immense corporate powers and pretence at being democratic, and this is not brought out in the film. Second criticism: Arendt was specific that the Jewish councils were Nazi-appointed, not elected by the communities themselves, and this is not mentioned in the film: it should be an important element in the debate. Thirdly, a preoccupation for many was that Jewish passivity (or cooperation, as Arendt put it) might lessen German guilt. This is addressed only glancingly, an uncomfortable omission in a German-made film.
Hannah Arendt is an absorbing film by Margarethe von Trotta, who once made a portrait of Rosa Luxemburg, also with Barbara Sukowa in the lead role. So the expectation here is high, and on the whole it succeeds very well. It is certainly difficult to bring philosophy to the screen, but such is the verbal command and charisma of Sukowa in the role that you hang on to her every word as if it were an oracle. It is ironic in a sense, because this is just the kind of effect Arendt would presumably be sceptical of, but here is used to good ends. Arendt's final speech to assembled students seems to stand on content alone, whatever passion may inform it.
She had been sent to Jerusalem for Nazi criminal Adolph Eichmann's trial in 1961, and in her subsequent lengthy articles for the New Yorker, claimed he was a figure of total banality who had abnegated all sense of being a thinking person, and was genuinely carrying out orders without any emotion or judgement. She saw this as an explanation for evil on a large scale far more than people acting out of passion. This seems to be borne out by the actual footage we see of the trial, even though the abstraction of a philosophical mind may push it to an absolute position that is impractical in a legal context. She was accused of defending him. But she was clearly saying something essentially true, not to be taken as a defence at all. What was more problematic still was her claim, given briefly in the articles, that some Jews in positions of power had not resisted anti-Semitism enough and had in some sense colluded with their persecutors. This was what really caused a storm of controversy, but it is perhaps a weakness in the film that the issue is not looked into or substantiated one way or the other as a documentary would do. Presumably there is no easy answer, because motives cannot be read in the end, where actions are mired in ambiguity. Aside from this, the film is a passionate plea for the right to speak and try to say the truth, and that whatever objections are raised, this should be done also in a spirit of trying to get closer to the truth, not knowingly to cover it up because certain lies may be more comfortable. Again, the context would seem to be crucial, because in politics it surely isn't possible to go round saying the truth all the time, although we expect it of a great thinker. The film makes you think about all these things, and Sukowa is outstanding in the role, able to access a wide range of responses with great subtlety. We see the private affections and vulnerability of a person who seemed to live the life of the mind completely, yet was very human too. It is an important film and a bold one to make in the current climate of film culture, where its type of integrity and rigour are not likely to have wide appeal.
An interesting film on the report for The New Yorker (and later book) by Hannah Arendt on the trial in Israel of Adolf Eichmann. (This gave rise to the phrase "the banality of evil"). In the course of her comments Arendt aroused the rage of many readers by questioning the role of certain Jewish community leaders. But the film is not concerned with the details of this so much as the effect of the controversy on her life and her friends (some of whom became severe critics). The rage of the critics seems to have included a healthy dollop of anti European intellectualism but there is not enough time of data to get into the facts; however, one can clearly see the collision between passion and philosophy, between hot and cold.
"Hannah Arendt" (2012 release from Germany; 109 min.) is NOT a biopic of the German "political theorist" Hannah Arendt. Instead, it brings us the story surrounding Hannah Arendt (played by Barbara Sukowa) in 1961 when she is hired by the New Yorker Magazine to cover the trial in Jerusalem of ex-Nazi Adolf Eichmann, who was famously abducted by the Israeli secret police in Buenos Aires to stand trial for his crimes/atrocities against the Jews. Arendt soon creates a controversy within her circle of friends, and later, when her articles are published, within the Jewish community at large, with her controversial, yet misunderstood, views on the trial. It was in those articles that Arendt coined the now famous term "the banality of evil".
Several comments: this is another historical drama, say along the lines of the recent "Emperor" movie. But there are differences. First, there is the amazing performance of Barbara Sukowa in the title role. She is simply outstanding. Second, this is directed by the legendary German director Margarethe von Trotta, now in her 70s if you can believe is. (Sukowa and von Trotta have teamed up before.) Third, the movie makes ample use of historical footage of the actual trial of Eichmann, and it is fascinating stuff to watch. Fourth, while there are a number of flashbacks to Arendt's earlier days as a philosophy student and her involvement with professor/philosopher Martin Heidegger (who eventually joined the Nazi party), there remain much more to be said/shown about Arendt (which of course is not the scope of this movie). Fifth, this being set in 1961, people are smoking cigarettes non-stop in virtually every scene of the movie, it is just beyond belief. Lastly, a weakness in the movie is that there is no enough real drama to be felt, even with all the controversies going on, reason that I rate this "only" 4 stars, as I still enjoyed the movie quite a bit.
I saw "Hannah Arendt" in August at my local art-house theatre here in Cincinnati, and the matinee screening I saw this at was surprisingly well attended, tilting heavily towards seniors. Alas, the movie didn't play very long on the big screen (it's already gone). That said, if you are in the mood for a quality foreign movie, or simply interested in the historical context of this topic, I would readily recommend you seek this out, be it in the theatre or on DVD.
Making a film about a philosopher presents challenges. Philosophers and the life of reflection are internalized and often require patience and discipline to understand. Movies for a wide audience tend to depend on action. Directed by Margarethe von Trotta and starring Barbara Sukowa in the title role, "Hannah Arendt" has the famous German-Jewish émigré philosopher as its subject. If understandably slow in places, "Hannah Arendt" is worthwhile. The movie played in an independent theater in Washington, D.C. to appreciative audiences. It is valuable that it will soon available and accessible on DVD, and that the film is now available for review and discussion here on Amazon. The movie is in part in English and in part in German, with subtitles.
Hannah Arendt (1906 -- 1975) studied philosophy in Germany and wrote her dissertation (on St. Augustine) under Karl Jaspers. She became an American citizen in 1950, and taught and wrote widely. In 1961, Arendt covered the trial of Adolph Eichmann in Jerusalem and wrote what became her most famous book, "Eichmann in Jerusalem" Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (Penguin Twentieth Century Classics) which was and remains highly controversial. The book became known for the term "banality of evil" which Arendt seemed to use to characterize Eichmann's activities.
The movie "Hannah Arendt" focuses upon Arendt's coverage of the Eichmann trial and the controversy her book engendered. Much of the book is set in the rarefied world of the New York City intellectual as Arendt is shown with her dear friend Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer), her beloved but philandering husband Heinrich (Axel Milberg), and others. There are scenes of Arendt teaching her classes and less effective scenes of the philosopher alone with herself thinking and writing.
Then there are scenes of Eichmann and the trial using original footage. I found these scenes effective. Arendt observes and ponders, less facts than theory and motivation. She studied the trial transcript but did not observe the trial in its entirety.
The movie tries to capture something of Arendt's thoughts, at the inevitable price of over-simplification. It captures well the furor resulting from the book, with some readers thinking that Arendt trivialized Eichmann and perhaps even the Holocaust. The movie includes a ringing scene in which Arendt defends her book before a skeptical university audience.
Flashbacks show Arendt's affair as a young impressionable college student with the famous philosopher Martin Heidegger, married and many years older than Arendt. Many years after she became famous herself, Arendt got back in touch with the aged Heidegger and visited him and his wife.
Arendt's claim about the banality of evil emphasizes the ease with which people can be ensnared. Many today would argue that Arendt said something difficult and important about the "banality of evil" while she misjudged radically the character and deep personal culpability of Eichmann.
"Hanna Arendt" is thoughtful and captures its time and characters, including the chain-smoking philosopher, but it plods at times. It remains a good rare attempt to think about philosophy through film.
Like Vision (the previous movie by Margarethe von Trotta starring Barbara Sukowa) this is a fantastic movie with a serious flaw. But in both cases, the flaws have nothing to do with Sukowa, whom I had never heard of before Vision but who I now see is one of the world's greatest actors. She is perfect in both roles, in both movies. Since she dominates both movies, she is so good that she earns the movies five stars from me despite the serious flaws.
The flaw in this movie is that many of the supporting roles are filled by terrible actors, and they're so bad that they can't be ignored - when they're on screen they completely derail the movie, and it doesn't recover until Sukowa returns and they leave. The very worst of those incompetent performances are by actors (Megan Gay, Harvey Friedman and Janet McTeer) who have been thoroughly competent in other movies, so the problem must be with von Trotta's direction of them.
The fact that all three characters are Americans (only one of the actors - Friedman - is) probably isn't a coincidence. Von Trotta evidently doesn't have much sense of how Americans tick, or even talk, so she doesn't quite know how to create credible American characters in a movie. Germans - of any era - she does great; Americans: no.
A secondary but related flaw is that she should have hired an American production designer. I understand why she filmed all the New York interior scenes (which means practically the whole movie) in Germany, but, unfortunately, they all LOOK like German interiors, not at all like real New York interiors, even in the early 1960s.
Although I'm very glad she made this movie, if she plans to continue filming American stories she really needs to get help from people who know how to create a believable America and believable Americans on film. She's a great director, but she needs help if she intends to keep making movies about America.
Just thought that I would post this review for anyone with hearing loss. The movie is partly in English and partly in German. The sections in German are subtitled but not the sequences in English. Unfortunately, Barbara Sukowa's English accent is especially strong, so I could only partly understand what she was saying and had to give up after 10 minutes. This is a pity as what I saw of the movie was superb. Shame on Soda Pictures for not including optional subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing. Fortunately, The US Region 1 release does have them, but you will need to import a copy and own a multi-region DVD player to view it.
A very interesting feature-film on Hannah Arendt and the `banality of evil', looking in particular at her analysis of the Nazi SS officer, Adolf Eichmann, and his trial and execution in Israel. I have only read a small amount of Arendt's work and, in many respects, I do not find her politics or philosophy appealing, but the movie is of interest not so much because of her particular stance, but the reaction that it evoked. Arendt, herself a Jew who escaped from a Nazi internment camp in 1941, was vilified by parts of the Jewish community for her attempt to understand the psychology of fascism - understanding being falsely interpreted as forgiveness - and for her criticisms of the actions of certain Jewish leaders during the holocaust. This provides, I think, an interesting historical example of the mechanisms which sit behind the current Israeli leadership - i.e. identifying the actions of certain Jewish leaders with the will of all Jewish people, and thus branding all critics, even those who suffered the barbarity of Nazi imprisonment, as anti-Semites. Good movie!