Crafting a film around a large body of work surrounding a philosopher is no easy matter. It is easy to enter the realm of condescension when trying to communicate the ideas that ruled their lives, as with the depiction of Hypatia in Agora, making even the fundamentals of mathematics so mind-numbingly dull and obvious that we may start to root for the derelict students. A blunt presentation of the lessons of the Tractatus lends to our suspicion that Derek Jarman’s Wittgenstein is a floating wisp of cerebral indulgence, although the strengths of that film lie in Jarman’s masterful formalistic, abstract qualities rather than the communication of the ideas of early analytic philosophy. With Hannah Arendt, Margarethe von Trotta, previously known for her emergence in New German Cinema alongside Fassbinder and Schlöndorff as well as for her films Marianne and Juliane and Rosa Luxemburg, has crafted a biopic about the process, profession, and power of thought embedded within a controversial figure trapped within historical immediacy when the world needed a pause.
Arendt lives and breathes a sort of bourgeois intellectualism, able to discuss politics and big ideas with other important thinkers from her large, book-filled New York apartment. She has a loving and supportive husband, friends who playfully challenge her (most notably writer Mary McCarthy [Janet McTeer]), and a deep connection to her Jewish ancestry and the many complications it has provided her. Her teaching job at The New School affords her a comfortable way to espouse her ideas and influence, and engage young minds until she takes it upon herself to cover the historic trial of Adolf Eichmann for The New Yorker. Upon arriving in Jerusalem, she is privy to familial affection, Jewish identification, and unmitigated anger at an individual on trial for the dark crimes of a nation. However, when viewing recordings of the trial (stripped from actual footage of the Eichmann trial), she cannot relate to the visceral reactions of her broad family: instead of seeing a monster whose implications brought a grave toll to her nation, she views him as harmless and a bit boring. The man was a cog in a well-oiled, evil machine rather than an individually guilty party, his wrongdoing not measured in his will but from following orders he was not willing to measure ethically. There are immediate lamentations to Arendt’s primordial ideas over something she would later coin as the “banality of evil,” but she returns to New York eager to publish. Her case is surrounded by a sort of abstract darkness, demonstrated by the shots of Arendt alone with her thoughts, pondering without our access of her case and the sort of trouble it will stir. These deep-thought sequences allows Arendt’s career of thinking to be taken seriously as a major effort, her task and mental capabilities now being a pivotal point of human history; although Arendt, the figure in love, is also allowed to live through her recollections of being controversial philosopher Martin Heidegger’s lover, her oncoming public bout being contrasted with his public support of the Nazi party. When the articles and book become published, Arendt is left to correct and reinterpret, win students and lose friends, and stick to her resolve that thinking may be the most important thing a person can do.
Barbara Sukowa’s interpretation of the character of Arendt heavily complements von Trotta’s portrayal of the figure defined by her controversy: a warm, friendly presence amongst colleagues reveals her as being easily to get along with. Her private life revolves around a consistent affection for her husband, Heinrich Blücher (Alex Milberg), yet her face remains strong when met with unwarranted criticism, her resolve present in her eyes and mannerisms (no doubt thanks to Sukowa’s incredible sense of respect for what it means to be a powerful thinker). From its romantic characterizations, it may be easy to think of von Trotta as essentially placing Arendt in the realm of literary Mary Sue, a victim of emotionally stunted yet powerful journalistic figures who simply couldn’t grasp the deeper strength of Eichmann in Jerusalem (or in many cases, even bother to read it). It may also be easy to regard the persistent choice of flashback to her love, respect, and ultimate discomfort around Martin Heidegger as being problematic, the recognition of her struggles being obtusely conflated with the objectionable attitude Heidegger took with the Nazi party, remarks that stuck with him long after his death, may be too on-the-nose and agenda-pushing. These elements can be distracting, her objectors’ rage being taken to a consistent extent even Douglas Sirk would not melodramatize, yet they almost seem to solve one another, allowing the movie to step outside a normal biopic quality to tell another story of Arendt’s real fault of perplexing respect and living in the shadow of an intellectual whose influence lends an emotional doubt to her proudly logical work. While von Trotta admires the task and career of thinking, she also offers that its confines are not brass-bound, its exterior malleable and that that influence can be for the best.
Her objectors’ claims are invariably determined by sheer emotional response, that giving Eichmann any room to have been perhaps-not-so-evil is an unjust and amoral opinion to have and its seemingly sole defender in Arendt could only be a stab of provocation or an embodiment of Jewish self-hatred (A note of irony here is that while Arendt’s writings were posted and defended in The New Yorker and lambasted in the response in The New York Times, Richard Brody of The New Yorker did not care for Hannah Arendt while A.O. Scott of The New York Times loved it.) Hannah often counters this claim, including in the pivotal courtroom-drama-like sequence to her new students in The New School, by asking her audience to delve into her work and think objectively about the situation Eichmann has been placed, acting as scapegoat for his nation’s travesty. Yet perhaps von Trotta, outside of Arendt, understands that this may not be the full truth, that her past troubles with Heidegger has motivated her writing more than Arendt may be willing to credit. “Trying to understand is not defending!” she erupts with conviction in response to her colleague in the classroom, a sentiment shared to her personally from her mentor, her need to insinuate perhaps also sparked by a need to defend the figure that most haunts her.
While what is perceived as her defense of Eichmann was troublesome enough, her condemnation of several Jewish leaders involved with indirectly aiding the Holocaust is what garners attention from her ardent Jewish critics as the statement has little to specifically deal with the trail of Eichmann himself and seemed unnecessary and abhorrent. Her friend Hans later shares with her, “You behave like a superior German intellectual who looks down on us Jews,” concluding that he is “done with Heidegger’s favorite student.” Her admiration of the task of thinking has manifested itself as a contrarian notion to her Jewish identification, yet Arendt feels no need to divide these lines or pick sides. For others, Arendt is a defender of both Heidegger and Eichmann, someone who jumps intellectual hurdles to distance herself from the struggles of those whom she should identify with and defend. Arendt sees a more complicated picture, as does von Trotta,carefully crafting her character to think alone in the darkness, in front of books and smoke, longing for answers from inside herself.