Review: thinking on screen – von Trotta’s ‘Hannah Arendt’

Barbara Sukowa plays German intellectual Hannah Arendt in Margarethe von Trotta’s biopic. Heimatfilm

In 1961, German-American philosopher Hannah Arendt was sent by The New Yorker to cover Adolf Eichmann’s trial, in Jerusalem, Israel, where he faced execution for crimes against humanity, war crimes, crimes against the Jewish people, and membership of a criminal organisation. Her report proposed “the banality of evil,” an expression which described the radical disparity between Eichmann’s underwhelming personality and the incalculable magnitude of his sins.

Eichmann, she claimed, was not a “monster” in any typical or expected sense of that word. He was, rather, a bureaucratic functionary, unable to express himself in anything but clichés and incapable of exhibiting the self-awareness required to question the laws under whose premise he laboured. He was, in a word, banal, and the administration of a genocidal program proceeded from his banality.

Eichmann was neither a fanatic nor a sociopath. He was an ordinary man who accepted the rule of his state, his party, and their Führer. According to Arendt, his embodiment of evil resulted from an inability or an unwillingness to think.

German director Margarethe von Trotta’s latest film, Hannah Arendt, is a biographical portrait of its eponymous heroine, chronicling her formulation of that thesis and her experience of the disputations with which it was received.

Hannah Arendt and New Yorker editor William Shawn in Margarethe von Trotta’s biopic of Hannah Arendt. Heimatfilm

The film’s expeditious narrative proceeds from Eichmann’s arrest in Argentina through Arendt’s assignment from New York to Jerusalem and incorporates both the backlash elicited by her published interpretation and a series of flashbacks to her intellectual development at the University of Marburg, in Germany.

Von Trotta’s women

Von Trotta’s depictions of women have earned her the titles of “the world’s leading feminist filmmaker” and “Germany’s foremost female film director”.

In her celebrated 1986 biopic of Rosa Luxemburg, for instance, we are given to behold the life of an extremely intelligent and politically committed woman as she campaigns to revolutionise the social and economic conditions of Germany in the first decades of the 20th century. The political efficacy of this portrait is synonymous with its exquisite characterisation of a woman whose life served as a driving force behind communist revolution.

Von Trotta’s subsequent protagonists have consistently inhabited the paradigm exemplified by Luxemburg, obtaining within von Trotta’s “personal mould of historically important women.”

Though von Trotta insists that Arendt is one of these women and has likened her to Luxemburg on several occasions, we should still bear in mind the irreducible difference between a liberal intellectual, occupying the New York scene of the early 1960s, and a communist revolutionary who spent much of her political life in prison and who was murdered by fascists in 1919. That both women are played by Barbara Sukowa, who delivers a magnificent performance in both roles, invites the comparison.

Just one of their differences is the fact that Arendt was singularly instrumental in the liberal left’s disavowal of communism and its manifold projects.

A public philosopher

By the film’s account, Arendt’s struggle takes place between her obstinate philosophy of thinking, judgment, and criminal culpability, and a massive readership whose disagreement with that philosophy turns hysterically belligerent.

Though Arendt is the recipient to a barrage of hate mail and subject to a truly harrowing visit from a carload of Mossad agents, her struggle nevertheless plays out within the frame of an immediate social circle. When asked if, in retrospect, she would have agreed to cover the trial, Arendt replies: “Yes. I would have covered it. Maybe to learn who my real friends are.”

Indeed, the film’s dramatic tension is confined to a group of friends, whose relationships are transformed by an intellectual controversy. Some of these roles are inspired — Janet McTeer’s playful travesty of Mary McCarthy is particularly enjoyable, and the romantic warmth shared by Arendt and her second husband, Heinrich Blücher, is convincing enough — but, for the most part, the film’s historical characterology tends toward caricature.

This transportation from the historical stage into a defined, personal sphere galvanises a redoubled emphasis on the film’s melodramatic potentialities.

Of course, melodrama holds pride of place within New German Cinema. At its best, as in the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder (in which both von Trotta and Sukowa acted), the genre’s irony becomes a tool for social critique. In von Trotta’s film, however, melodrama only contradicts internally argued values.

Thinking on screen

In a charge that inverts Arendt’s diagnosis of evil, her detractors variously insist that she is all thought and no feeling. Yet, while the film’s characters didactically proclaim the value of thinking, its melodramatic frame denies access to any such representation.

Serious, engaged thought – the kind conducted by actually existing philosophers and tenured theorists such as Arendt — requires an immense amount of concentration. “In this case,” as A.O. Scott has been correct to observe, “it looks a lot like smoking, with intervals of typing, pacing or staring at the ceiling from a daybed in the study.”

To be sure, a rabid aversion to the long and ponderous silences utilised by von Trotta’s stated inspiration, Ingmar Bergman, to depict “inner psychic worlds” manifests here in a histrionic will to externalise thought through social interaction.

If Arendt thinks, we don’t see it, and we don’t see it because melodrama constantly obviates against the very possibility of its existence.

Famous philosophers can obviously enjoy emotionally-freighted romantic lives — one thinks of Peter Abelard and Héloïse d’Argenteuil, of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir — but those relationships are merely background to thought itself, not its actualisation through thinking. They are, precisely, melodramatic.

A lonely business?

This contradiction (between the narrative advocacy of thought and its negation through generic articulation) descends from the problematic to something approaching self-parody on the several occasions we are granted access to Arendt’s psychological interior – as it opens up through a series of flashbacks to her education under the tutelage of the philosopher Martin Heidegger.

An encounter between Martin Heidegger and a young Hannah Arendt. Heimatfilm

When the young Arendt arrives at his office for the first time and asks the professor how to reconcile passion with thought, he responds: “thinking is a lonely business.”

Not so in this film.

In a subsequent appearance, Heidegger excitedly bounds up a flight of stairs to his press his face into the student’s inviting lap. These flashbacks are less concerned with cognitive labour, with the authors of Being and Time and The Origins of Totalitarianism, than they are with soap-operatic displays of forbidden affection.

Hannah Arendt is released in Australia on March 13. More details here.

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