When Adolf Eichmann is captured by Israeli secret agents and taken to Jerusalem to be tried for war crimes, New York based Jewish philosophy professor and political theorist Hannah Arendt (Barbara Sukowa) offers to go and cover the trial for The New Yorker. After she attends Eichmann's trial in 1961, Arendt dares to write about the Holocaust in terms no one had ever done before, putting forward the shallow mediocrity of the man as an example of the banality of evil. Her work deeply disturbs her best friend Hans Jonas (Ulrich Noethen) and instantly provokes a scandal, but Arendt stands strong as she is attacked by friends and foes alike. The publication of her article in The New Yorker provokes an immediate scandal in the U.S., Israel, and soon in the rest of the world. (Based on a true story)
Review by Louise Keller:
Reflecting her thoughts, there is sunlight and shadow on the face of German philosopher Hannah Arendt, as the bus in which she is travelling leaves Jerusalem after the heated trial of a Nazi officer. The issue at hand concerning the fundamental nature of evil and whether the lack of thought deflects from liability is a fascinating one and German actress Barbara Sukowa delivers a powerful central performance in this thought provoking but sometimes turgid biopic from Rosenstrasse director Margarethe von Trotta. Totalitarianism with sinful intentions versus bureaucratic compliance is what is on the menu - the result is more interesting on an academic and intellectual level than in actual engagement and entertainment terms.
Von Trotta tackles a difficult subject matter: an idea is touted rather than a linear story with predictable dramatic arc. As a consequence, patience is required as the film evolves during the all-important establishment of Hannah Arendt as an intellectual, a respected teacher, friend, mother and wife. Considerable emphasis is placed on her relationships, including that with her husband Heinrich (Axel Milberg), with whom she escaped from a detention camp during the war and her mentor Martin Heidegger (Klaus Pohl), who was integral in teaching her how to think when she was an impressionable young student, years ago.
After an intriguing brief prologue in which a man is forcibly thrown into a truck and a pensive Hannah smokes a cigarette she reclines on her lounge, we become immersed into the reality in which Hannah now lives. Her life is that of a revered teacher at The New School in New York: she is someone whose opinions are eagerly sought by friends, colleagues and acquaintances. The way footage of the real Adolf Eichmann, whose trial is the trigger for the controversy resulting from Hannah's commissioned articles for The New Yorker, is most effective. Watching Eichmann's pursing of lips and distortion of his facial features as he answers questions from his segregated 'glass box' throughout the trial is fascinating. The moment in which Hannah recognises the ordinariness and bureaucratic nature of the man is the revelation on which the film's essence relies.
Much of the film plays out with an old-fashioned feel and the dialogue at times feels stilted. Hannah's discovery as to who are her true friends provides part of the emotional twists and turns, but most potent is the climactic scene in which she addresses her students and colleagues as she defends her position against the accusations of her being anti-Semitic and a Nazi sympathiser.
Hannah Arendt raises critical ideology for the thinker although as a film, it plods somewhat and falls short of being the inspiration I hoped.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
It's a hard argument to make in the face of deep seated emotions, but Hannah Arendt wrote that, in effect, loyal and efficient bureaucrats are the real perpetrators of crimes such as the Holocaust. They just follow orders; they suspend their consciences in favour of loyal obedience. Adolf Eichmann says as much himself at his trial, excerpts of which are integrated into Margarethe von Trotta's intense and intellectually stimulating film.
Eichmann struck Arendt as a shallow nobody, and she coined the phrase to sum him up as the epitome of the banality of evil. But there was worse: when Arendt was critical of the way that some Jewish leaders acted during the Holocaust, that brought the wrath of ... well, not god, actually, but the Jewish world.... down on her.
In the film's most important scene near the end where she addresses her university class (plus a few 'special' guests from the board) to argue her theory about totalitarianism creating a moral shift in the whole population that distorts normal choices and decisions, Barbara Sukowa displays her complete comprehension of the Arendt character and the things that drive her.
We often see Arendt lying on a lounge, a cigarette burning between fingers, eyes closed: it's hardly surprising that von Trotta uses the most accessible imagery to portray what she is: a thinker. This is her thinking, over and over; thinking is a subject referred to elsewhere in the film, in powerful words. There is no question where von Trotta's sympathies lie, but rather than call it bias, I prefer to call it a supportive argument.
Yet it is as a piece of drama about the human condition that this film needs to be assessed, and on that score - with a few quibbles about structure and flashbacks and occasional lack of clarity - it is successful, in its own rigorous way.
Email this article
HANNAH ARENDT (PG)
CAST: Barbara Sukowa, Axel Milberg, Janet McTeer, Julia Jentsch, Ulrich Noethen, Michael Degen, Nicholas Woodeson, Victoria Trauttmansdorf, Klaus Pohl
PRODUCER: Bettina Brokemper
DIRECTOR: Margarethe von Trotta
SCRIPT: Margarethe von Trotta, Pam Katz
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Caroline Champetier
EDITOR: Bettina Bohler
MUSIC: Andre Mergenthaler
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Volker Schafer
RUNNING TIME: 113 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Curious Distribution
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: March 13, 2014