Film Review: Hannah Arendt

Terrific fact-based drama, both thought-provoking and entertaining, about German-born Jewish-American intellectual Hannah Arendt, who covered infamous Nazi SS officer Adolf Eichmann&#8217;s 1961 Jerusalem trial for T<i>he New Yorker.</i>

Veteran German director Margarethe von Trotta (Rosenstrasse, Rosa Luxemburg, Vision, etc.) has perhaps her strongest film to date with Hannah Arendt, yet another of her works about historically important women. Also notable is the superb cast led by von Trotta regular Barbara Sukowa, who has portrayed several of the filmmaker’s heroines.

Beautifully written and directed, this biopic of the eponymous writer/intellectual/political theorist focuses on the four years surrounding German emigrée Arendt’s famous coverage of the extraordinary Adolf Eichmann trial that followed his headline-grabbing capture and kidnapping in Argentina by Israel’s undercover Mossad unit.

As depicted in Arendt’s hugely controversial five-part New Yorker piece (later turned into her best-selling book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil), the Nazi in charge of all transport of Europe’s Jews to the camps and charged with crimes against humanity, emerges little more than a non-thinking bureaucrat who epitomizes mediocrity and just follows orders. But it was Arendt’s other conclusions that created a great stir. Placed in a glass booth for his trial, Eichmann, a monster to most, became, thanks to Arendt’s writings, widely known as the world’s most notorious non-thinker. (Subsequent research contests this black-and-white take.)

Von Trotta’s sober cinematic evocation of a non-thinker under the microscope of world-class thinker Arendt should solidly score with thinkers of all ages among the art-house crowd. (Non-thinkers have ample tentpoles for summer viewing.)

Mainly focusing on the four early-60s years when Arendt dealt with the trial and the repercussions of her controversial conclusions, the film begins with some fleeting and unadorned shots of Eichmann’s 1960 capture but quickly lands us in the spacious Upper West Side Manhattan apartment that Arendt shares with beloved husband Heinrich Blucher (Axel Milberg), a self-educated, Gentile German intellectual and former Communist activist whom she met in Paris after fleeing the rise of Nazism in the ’30s.

As convincing a musty haven for intellectuals as the residence in Amour was as the bode of its once-prominent musician couple, the apartment here is also an oasis for Arendt’s great lifelong friend Mary McCarthy (played by two-time Oscar Nominee Janet McTeer), the well-known novelist who penned the 1963 bestseller The Group. The two bonded years earlier as writers and intellectuals, but their light chatter first captured here is about familiar spousal matters. But when Arendt reads news of Eichmann’s capture and the imminent trial in Jerusalem, the narrative gathers steam. New Yorker editor William Shawn (Nicolas Woodeson) gives the green light to her pitch letter about covering the trial, as she’s already well-known in intellectual circles for her political classic The Origins of Totalitarianism and teaching engagements at schools like Harvard, the University of Chicago and her then-position at New York’s New School for Social Research.

Known for her “genius for friendship,” Arendt also counts among her intimates Jewish-German philosopher Hans Jonas (Ulrich Noethen), her oldest friend whom she met when both were students in Germany and who, after several migrations and an activist role in Palestine, eventually made his way to the New York area where he became a successful academic and key member of Hannah and Heinrich’s circle. Also important to the story are Arendt’s loyal secretary and assistant Lotte Kohler (Julia Jentsch) and Israeli resident Kurt Blumenfeld (Michael Degen), a father figure and beloved old friend with whom Arendt reunites when she goes to Jerusalem for the trial.

Another long-lasting and unlikely Arendt friend was philosopher Martin Heidegger (Klaus Pohl)—her esteemed professor and first love when she was at university in Germany—who made the stunning decision to join the Nazi Party in 1933 (at the same time Arendt fled Germany because of the Nazi rise).

The film only diverges from Arendt’s four “Eichmann” years for a brief subplot via flashbacks about the surprisingly durable Heidegger/Arendt bond. Despite Heidegger’s much-maligned party affiliation, Arendt renewed their friendship in 1950, and with several lengthy interruptions the relationship remained important to both throughout their lives.

Another of the film’s major characters, of course, has to be Eichmann, seen via archival footage of the trial as an unrepentant and largely stone-faced (except for hints of a snarly expression) lug. He’s the poster boy for mediocrity, lacking not an iota of the charm and intelligence that could have made him a perfect screen villain.

In Jerusalem at the trial, Arendt, a nonstop smoker, opts for the press room, where she watches the trial on monitors and lights up whenever. Back in New York with tons of transcripts even before the verdict comes in, she types away but not before thinking long and deep about what she experienced. Editor Shawn puts up with her missed deadlines and insistence that her five-part coverage will be submitted when all parts are completed.

Once published, the article ignited huge controversy with her conclusions about Eichmann, just a cog in a wheel of evil, and the Jewish leadership, that through the Jewish Councils helped the Nazis in their efficient roundups and systematic mass murders. Also stirring ire were Arendt’s ideas that Eichmann never personally hurt a Jew, that he not only followed orders but also followed the law, and that the trial was less about an individual than it was a condemnation of a system as a matter of settling scores.

As a result of such notions, Arendt was shunned by close friends (including Hans and Kurt) and New School colleagues, among others. The fury culminates late in the film—a high point—with Arendt delivering a lecture (more explanation than apologia) at the New School to still the stormy waters that enveloped her.

Focused on the trial years, the controversy and Arendt’s Heidegger bond, the film doesn’t address Eichmann’s guilty verdict or hanging. Most significantly, there’s no suggestion of the more recent subsequent research and witness interviews alleging Eichmann wasn’t such a numbskull just following orders and ignorant of the unfathomable consequences of such dutiful dedication. Surely there’s a documentary waiting to happen that will accrue this evidence of Eichmann’s deeper culpability.