Hannah Arendt

Germany (2012) Dir. Margarethe von Trotta

“Trying to understand is not the same as forgiveness.”

It’s difficult to put a point across successfully to people who can’t – or won’t – spend a moment to actually listen to what you are saying or understand the perspective you are coming from. The once celebrated German philosophical writer and thinker Hannah Arendt discovered the devastating consequences of this following the publication of her controversial 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.

In 1961 Nazi general Adolf Eichmann, one of the key men responsible for the holocaust, had been captured in South America and put on trial in Israel. Hannah Arendt (Barbara Sukowa), based in New York as a lecturer, offers to cover the trial for the New Yorker magazine which is accepted. During the trial, Arendt is surprised to see Eichmann is not a callous, defensive brute but an ordinary man with no apparent will of his own.

Arendt’s subsequent philosophical summary of the trial and of Eichmann as a person was seen by many as Arendt sympathising with Eichmann and not condemning him for his actions, whilst her criticism of the actions of Jewish leaders at the time was deemed a betrayal of her people (Arendt was Jewish). Having been so badly misinterpreted, Arendt was shocked by the hostile backlash that threatened her career and reputation.

By focusing on what is arguably a pivotal, if infamous, point in Arendt’s life and career, this film can hardly be called a bio-pic as her life story is not detailed here. Aside from a couple of flashbacks revealing an affair young Arendt had with noted philosopher Martin Heidegger (himself a Nazi collaborator), the man who first taught Arendt to “think”, this is the only side of the woman we get to see.

Yet it is enough to give us an understanding an idea of what kind of women Arendt was – chain smoking, unfussy, intelligent, witty, forthright, opinionated, and of course, a deep thinker. As survivors of concentration camps themselves, Arendt and patient husband Heinrich (Axel Milberg) describe the US as “paradise” for the freedoms they have been afforded but this is compromised once Arendt’s book is published.

The film doesn’t pick up steam until the trial starts; the first half hour spent introducing Arendt, her friends and colleagues and setting the scene. The trial itself uses footage from the real court case from 1961, so Eichmann essentially plays himself here, sparing director Margarethe von Trotta any backlash had she dramatised the event, although one of Arendt’s main objections was how this was show trial by the Israeli court.

As Arendt observes, Eichmann looks like your average banker or office worker more than a Nazi monster, his language and officious way of replying to a question isn’t full of outrage or protestation but calm, if flawed, reasoning. This again fuels Arendt’s curiosity as to the sort of person that can perform such evil acts yet be so “normal”, concluding that Eichmann is really someone yearning to fit in and by following a mass ideology he achieves just that.

It is this reading of Eichmann’s character that becomes the central theme of Arendt’s New Yorker columns and subsequent book, which she has discussed in previous works so this allowed her to put this theory into practice in examining him. However, in deciding that Eichmann wasn’t inherently evil as he saw himself as simply “following orders”, many readers saw this as Arendt siding with the Nazi and excusing of his crimes.

Of course, this wasn’t even remotely true – Arendt was simply trying to fathom what drove this calm but unapologetic man with no admitted anti-Semitism to participate in Hitler’s genocide programme. Both Jews and non-Jews objected vociferously to Arendt’s bold and groundbreaking approach to this sensitive subject, resulting in verbal and written abuse, rampant public outcry and even pressure from the Israeli government to have the book pulped.

Readers of a certain vintage will recall the huge fuss made over John Lennon’s innocent ironic “bigger than Jesus” joke that saw America go apoplectic, burning Beatles records, boycotting their shows and calling for Lennon’s head on a silver platter. Whilst Arendt’s situation might not be as well known to modern audiences, there is a direct parallel to be found with the furore caused by Lennon’s unintentional faux pas.

Von Trotta plays it straight in telling the story, delivering the facts as she knows them to be with a dramatic flair to keep the audience entertained and invested. Whereas the usual intent is to stir up sympathy or support for the protagonist via standard cinematic manipulation, von Trotta doesn’t need to do any of this, the story does it all for her, ably supported by a terrific performance from Barbara Sukowa.

Sukowa portrays Arendt as a force to be reckoned who doesn’t suffer fools gladly but is far from an intellectual snob or haughty harridan, inspiring loyalty in those around her, until the book came out that is. The crowning achievement of the whole film comes in the final act as Arendt delivers a speech to her class explaining her position (providing the quote opening this review).

It’s a captivating scene, simply shot and beautifully performed, that crystallises the frustrations of being the lone voice of reason among a chorus of close-minded idiots yet it still failed to convince anyone of Arendt’s rationale and thinking behind her thesis. It’s a compelling display of defiance, resolve and strength of someone with the courage of their convictions.

The only problem is the dialogue is in German and English (including the climactic speech) as Arendt was bi-lingual, so with no HOH subtitles on this DVD release, I wasn’t able to follow everything as I’d like to have. Otherwise Hannah Arendt is a stirring introduction to a fascinating woman. It’s a shame that lessons weren’t learned from this debacle as mass hysteria still reigns because people still won’t stop and think…