At a time when too many homegrown films check their brains at the door to the theater, and the tone of political discourse in America has become unspeakably shrill, it might seem churlish to complain that a new film suffers from too much abstract discussion and a certain lack of passion.
Yet that is the problem with Margarethe von Trotta’s “Hannah Arendt,” which opens on May 29.
Perhaps that was inevitable, given that the primary attacks on the film’s title character seem to consist of decrying her Olympian detachment and supposed lack of emotion. Although the film labors to refute those charges, Arendt’s ostensible character and the hidebound nature of the biographical film as a genre combine with von Trotta’s own tendency towards a certain authorial dispassion to render the film a somewhat distanced experience.
Von Trotta and co-writer Pam Katz, a frequent collaborator, have chosen to use the controversy surrounding Arendt’s coverage of the trial of Adolf Eichmann as the lens through which to examine the philosopher’s life and ideas. This is not a foolish choice. Arendt (Barbara Sukowa) was never more a public figure than in the firestorm engendered by her ruminations on the nature of the Nazi evil and her denunciation of the Jewish leadership under their occupation. The lives of philosophers seldom provide a more perfect dramatic moment and, taken in tandem with the mysteries surrounding Arendt’s relationship with her former lover and mentor, Martin Heidegger, the situation would seem made to order. Add in Arendt’s constellation of German-Jewish émigré friends and colleagues and her friendship with the acerbic Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer, having a high time), and you should have a juicier-than-average biopic.
The film begins with the sounds of night over a black screen. A bus deposits a man in the middle of nowhere, almost literally, and suddenly he is grabbed and dragged into the back of a truck, leaving behind no trace he was ever there except a flashlight on the ground. This, of course, is Eichmann, being kidnapped by the Mossad. In the meantime, Hannah Arendt is sitting in her darkened New York apartment, smoking. In a film at whose center is the Heideggerian notion of “thought,” the central visual motif of light versus darkness seems particularly apt, and von Trotta will play with the metaphorical content throughout the film. She also delights in playing Arendt off against McCarthy, both visually (McTeer towers over Sukowa) and verbally, with the pair engaging in bouts of dueling “girl-talk” with an amusing literary edge.
The film is on its firmest ground when von Trotta’s rigorous, prowling camera movements have as the center of their attention the byplay between Arendt and her husband Heinrich Blűcher (Axel Milberg), and between Arendt and her closest friends. But the keystone to the narrative line is, inevitably, the Eichmann trial and its aftermath. As is well known, Arendt solicited the assignment from The New Yorker, to the delight of editor William Shawn (Nicolas Woodeson). Of course, as one of his sub-editors predicts, “Philosophers don’t make deadlines.” Using the black-and-white footage of the trial as broadcast globally, von Trotta creates an inventive if occasionally facile dialectic between Eichmann’s drab mediocrity and the mercurial reactions of Arendt watching in the press room. In these Sukowa proves a brilliant choice for the philosopher; she “does” stillness about as well as any actress in cinema today, and her mobile face and flashing eyes suggest a powerful intelligence under the surface.
As the trial drags on, we become gradually aware of Arendt’s changing reactions to the events in the courtroom. As she says over lunch with friends, “You can’t deny the huge difference between the unspeakable horror of the deeds and the mediocrity of the man.” That formulation, which will be encapsulated in the by now clichéd phrase “the banality of evil” will become one of the lightning rods of Arendt’s articles and book; although it is, necessarily, impossible for von Trotta to include enough of the trial footage to bring that notion to life, anyone who has watched recent documentaries about Eichmann’s prosecution will be unable to escape the same conclusion.
However, the real trigger for the controversy, more than her characterization of the defendant, is Arendt’s comments on the position of the Jewish community leadership vis-à-vis the Nazis. The Jewish establishment of 1961-’63 took her remarks as an indictment of their actions as well, and their rage was the fuel that exploded into flames. Ironically, von Trotta and Katz handle this issue rather clumsily; the screenplay is unclear about the source of the attacks on Arendt, personalizing them by introducing a bunch of straw-man opponents and sheaves of anonymous letters. At this point, the film turns into a disappointingly conventional fight for “free speech and thought,” with Sukowa delivering an eight-minute speech to her assembled students in explanation and defense of her book.
It has frequently been said that a historical film is only incidentally about the period in which it is set. The real subject must always be the period in which it is made. Watching “Hannah Arendt,” one cannot help wondering what von Trotta is thinking. In our age of instant communication, the 24-hour news cycle and ever more vicious public discourse, the debate over Arendt’s book, while certainly nasty, looks remarkably elevated in content if not tone. The question of the nature of human evil, central to Arendt’s later work, is still with us, and the passage of time and free flow of innocent blood in the half-century since the publication of “Eichmann in Jerusalem” suggests that Arendt was not wrong. Eichmann and his fellow Nazis were the harbingers of a new kind of evil, technocrats without passion who would “follow orders” of the most odious sort, bifurcated personalities who could shear off their consciences and only take them out on the weekends.
And that is one thing that von Trotta gets absolutely right.
“Hannah Arendt,” directed by Margarethe von Trotta, opens on Wednesday, May 29 at Film Forum (209 W. Houston St.) for a two-week run. For information, call (212) 727-8110 or go to www.filmforum.org.