“Hannah Arendt” is a remarkable film that manages to combine gripping drama with intellectual exploration. I worried that – like the writings of the German-Jewish philosopher at the heart of this biographical film – I would find it hard-going and dense, but in fact director Margarethe von Trotta has produced one of the most engaging films I’ve seen in yonks.
A professor who was a top student of Martin Heidegger, Hannah Arendt (played by Barbara Sukowa) goes to Jerusalem in 1961 to cover the trial of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann for the New Yorker. The five articles she produces – later collected in a book – raise hell among Jewish intellectuals, who are horrified both by her concept of “the banality of evil,” and by the role she suggests was held by the European Jewish leadership during the Holocaust.
At the heart of the film is Arendt’s loving relationship with her husband and with her best friend, the novelist Mary McCarthy (played by Janet McTeer). Flashbacks to her time as Heidegger’s protégé are revealing, and set the pattern for an adulthood in which so many folks around Arendt seem to lust for her. The way in which her colleagues turn on her after the publication of the New Yorker pieces seems grounded not only in their post-war trauma as Jews, but also in the emotional frustration that she does not reciprocate their passion.
Arendt is repeatedly criticized for being too intellectual and insufficiently emotional. It is the usual dismissal of women philosophers turned inside out and upside down (“too emotional,” “on the rag”), less than a decade before the feminist movement would explode.
The film is beautifully constructed, relentlessly engaging, and damned smart. The period of 1960-64, with smoking in the classrooms and women starting to break into academia, is honestly conveyed. If you want a grown-up film with superb acting (Barbara Sukowa played Rosa Luxemburg in an earlier von Trotta movie) that makes you glad you can think, don’t miss “Hannah Arendt.”