Margarethe von Trotta’s captivating “Hannah Arendt” is a slice of a biopic; it covers a ferociously controversial two years in the life of the 20th century philosopher who, during that time, would coin the term “the banality of evil.” Through Arendt’s story, the film looks at uneasy manifestations of guilt two decades after the Holocaust, but it also looks at a woman who wouldn’t be bullied away from her opinions.
In 1961, Arendt (Barbara Sukowa), a German-Jewish émigré living in New York City, gets wind of the imminent trial in Israel of the war crimes of Nazi Adolf Eichmann. She convinces the New Yorker to let her fly to Israel and cover the trial, with the promise of a lengthy report to be published in the magazine. While covering in Jerusalem, Arendt is struck by the mediocrity of Eichmann; he’s a man who doesn’t fit the atrocious acts he’s committed, though he’s committed them nonetheless.
This sequence in the film is deftly constructed. While the press room where Arendt sits and takes notes is obviously a set, the only glimpses we see of the trial -- and importantly, of Eichmann -- are historical footage. What better way to communicate Eichmann’s “mediocrity” than to show us the man himself, seated in his bullet-proof glass box, his washed-up face impassive behind dark-rimmed glasses?
Once home from the trial, Arendt composes a three-hundred page article, to be sectioned off into five installments for the New Yorker, a work that eventually would become the book "Eichmann in Jerusalem." She ruffles a few feathers with the leisurely pace at which she writes the piece (“Philosophers don’t do deadlines!” a catty and probably envious New Yorker employee warns the head editor at the magazine).
But a controversy erupts when the article is published. Readers don’t understand the way she characterizes Eichmann. A particular ten-page segment, in which she criticizes a number of Jewish leaders who facilitated the transportation of fellow Jewish citizens to Auschwitz, causes uproar. Appearing to blame the victims of the Holocaust doesn’t look good. Arendt’s months spent at a Jewish detention camp in France during the war, and a pre-war romance with her former philosophy professor Martin Heidegger, only confuse the matter more deeply. “Nazi sympathizer” and “self-loathing Jew” are hurtled at her.
Director Margarethe von Trotta ran with Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s crowd in the 1970s, even acting in a handful of his films, and by the 1980s had established herself as one of the most prominent filmmakers of the New German Cinema. In “Hannah Arendt,” her filmmaking style is alluringly strange, while also sticking to the conventional tenets of a biopic. I admire her apparent dislike of coverage. Her camera swoops through a scene somewhat haphazardly, resting on one face and then another, and then bringing them together in a two-shot before ambling off in another direction. She also freely uses the zoom, a wacky technique that I like.
This isn’t to say the film lacks professional sheen. The color palette and period detail recall the richness of “Mad Men.” The flashback sequences between Arendt and Heidegger are perhaps the most beautiful of the film, giving us fragments of sparingly edited information while not banging us over the head with the easily manipulative message that Hannah used to date a great thinker who would also become an outspoken Nazi.
The only weak areas of "Hannah Arendt" are the occasional English sequences, which have the clunky rhythm of a filmmaker directing out of her native language. (I also suspect that a large number of the “New Yorkers” in the film are actually German actors who speak English without accents.)
Yet Sukowa -- also a former star of Fassbinder’s -- is top-notch in either language. She speaks largely in German but must deliver Hannah’s final, exceptionally rousing monologue in English, and is indeed excellent.
The word “arrogant” is thrown at Arendt more than once throughout the film, and understandably so. She has a complete faith in her viewpoints, regardless of how radical or seemingly offensive, and waves away dissenters as if she has something more important to be doing. Sukowa plays this up to pleasingly no-bullshit effect, but also expresses Hannah as humorous, warm to her enraptured students, playfully affectionate with the philandering husband she loves so dearly, and deeply valuing of her friendships (like that with author Mary McCarthy, here played by a winningly mouthy Janet McTeer). And at certain moments, an expression passes over Hannah's face revealing an emotional anguish behind her steadfast philosophical views.
Von Trotta and Sukowa have now made five films together, usually focused on a remarkable woman living through a politically tumultuous period. “Hannah Arendt” continues this collaboration. Stories made by women, about women who possess the elusive quality of not caring what other people think, are important for the greater body of film. I look forward to seeing even more from this impressive duo.
"Hannah Arendt" hits theaters in New York on May 29, and Los Angeles on June 7, via Zeitgeist Films.