Intelligent Dissent, by Aaron Pinkston
It seems that every year introduces us to a few new films on the Holocaust, about the events or the consequences. At this point, it doesn’t seem like there could be much more to say about it — at least not as well as told by Shoah, Night and Fog or even (in a populist Hollywood sort-of-way) Schindler’s List. While Hannah Arendt may not be as great as the greatest films that tackle the historical subject, it finds a new version of the story through its subject. Arendt was a political philosopher most known for her coverage of the infamous trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, and the subsequent controversy over her thoughts. No longer a figure in the general public eye, this film is a fantastic introduction into her thoughts, work and life.
Films that so closely depict a specific historical event often run the risk of inaccurately telling the story or, worse yet, aggrandizing the events. Hannah Arendt perfectly skirts the issue through blending actual footage within the story — nearly all the footage of the trial of Adolf Eichmann is shown to the viewer without any apparent editing. The footage seems pure, as it was witnessed in 1961. The film also keeps a distance from the real-life events, never trying to blend fiction with nonfiction, which keeps it from feeling unnecessarily flashy. This technique is particularly effective for those who are uninitiated in the trial of Adolf Eichmann — it builds a trust with the viewer through a perceived untainted historical truth and keeps all the dynamic emotional truth by seeing the real events. As we obviously don’t see the entirety of the trial, the film can feel like a “greatest hits,” but the framing with Hannah’s work fills in the appropriate gaps.
Though the depiction of historical events is the clear highlight, Hannah Arendt is (as the title indicates) first-and-foremost a biography. Like many great biopics, the film tells us the story of a historical figure that we probably have no knowledge of — though she is highly regarded in education circles as a political theorist most tied to philosophies on totalitarianism, she isn’t the type of figure that would be known to a middlebrow film watcher. Because of this, there is no baggage to the portrayal, giving von Trotta and star Barbara Sukowa (Romance & Cigarettes, The Cradle Will Rock) free reign to shape this character and her voice. If you’ve ever seen Sukowa, you know that she is a more-than-capable actress for this type of role, and she completely delivers — like the film, never flashy, despite the circumstances.
Strangely, this film would only work without an inherent reverence to the person at the heart. If this was a picture wholly about the trial of Adolf Eichmann or more focused on Eichmann himself, there is no way the film could be as provocative in differing opinions. I wouldn’t call Hannah Arendt a “warts-and-all” biopic, but Arendt’s ideas that are crucial to this time period aren’t very popular. Though she was a Jew in Europe during the reign of Hitler, she remains emotionally disconnected from the trial that she is covering. In fact, her opinions of Eichmann don’t reflect the popular portrayal of a monster responsible for the murder of millions, but as a middleman following orders without guilt (she coined the phrase “the banality of evil” in reporting on this trial). The first time you hear Arendt make these arguments, they seem absurd, but the film and the woman are persistent, and you begin to understand what she means, even if you can’t agree on some emotional level. This is all balanced by the person we are introduced to, a woman who is well-liked by everyone, even those who vehemently disagree with her political thoughts. Arendt is smart, well-spoken, polite and loyal who just happened to think for herself — a fascinatingly complete figure. Sukowa embodies all of these traits perfectly.
Hannah Arendt is a rare type of biopic that gives us a complete picture of a person without telling the whole life story, while maintaining to be equally about ideas. Intellectual without being stodgy and historically truthful, the film shows the consequence of thought in the face of emotionally charged opposition. Arendt’s story is an important one when considering the Holocaust and its consequences, but she was a type of maverick thinker worthy of her own story. Hannah Arendt is nicely about both without feeling like too much.