Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt casts its heroine as a philosopher-cum-crossing guard amidst the rush-hour traffic of several politicultural (why not?) identities: German, American, Jewish, German Jewish, Jewish American, German American, and Zionist. (To von Trotta, characters that lean American are merely simpleton props.) To boot, she had an affair with Martin Heidegger. Though cordial and astute, this Upper West Side woman of letters, we see, is tasked therefore with more than her due, as she hosts gatherings of friends that quickly turn into heated debates.
So when Arendt’s (Barbara Sukowa) reportage of the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem leads to her conjecture that evil is the absence of thinking (as opposed to this particular Nazi), coupled with her assertion that much evil was wrought upon European Jews via their own cooperation with Nazism, she became an outcast in many—perhaps all—of the cultural identities she seemed to try to reconcile. But the tragedy of this story is diluted by the script’s heavy handedness on this point, which, at times, made me cringe in my seat. For too much of the film, viewers are subjected to a stock plot of what happens when one posits a good argument that happens to go against the emotional disposition of the masses.
Whereas these shortcomings are disappointing, von Trotta’s treatment of the Eichmann trial is interesting. Occasionally using archival footage and audio, and overlaying tense translation of the Hebrew proceedings onto scenes of Sukowa, sitting before a typewriter at a smokey pressroom desk, von Trotta allows some perspective on the mix of historical baggage and philosophical lucidity that shaped Arendt. In a flashback, we see that it was Heidegger himself who tells the young Arendt, “Thinking is a lonely business,” and here we see that it certainly is—almost to the point of mournfulness. And at a few superb points in the film we see Sukowa/Arendt as a pensive 1960s still-life, endlessly sucking down cigarettes, ruminating amidst books, at a typewriter, or whilst laying on her velvet chaise lounge.
This film places a philosopher (and a female one at that) at the center of a loaded dialogue that seems often to stray outside the vicinity of cool-headed thinking. (Arendt is crucified for being an unfeeling thinker even though that is exactly what the situation demands.) But von Trotta spends too much time prodding issues that are already and better dealt with in other films that relate to this web of topics. Arendt’s work, which even my cursory googling reveals, is compelling. I’m not sure this film does it justice.
Some older photos I posted to Twitter:
Evanston, Illinois July 2003 (II)
Soulard, St. Louis, Missouri, May 2005
Evanston, Illinois July 2003 (I)
Two Greenhouses, April 2003
Rebekah von Rathonyi, October 2003
Illinois River, May 2003
Self Portrait c. March 2003
Brooklyn, New York, March 2013
Conté and graphite drawing, March 27, 2013, in A3 Sketchbook.