In its attempt to get to grips with the intricate mind of the great German-Jewish political theorist who helped refine thinking on the Holocaust, Margarethe von Trotta’s fascinating picture focuses on one controversial journalistic adventure.
In 1961, Hannah Arendt, who fled Germany and then France for the US during the war, was dispatched by the New Yorker to cover the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. The resulting articles and book caused something of a storm by emphasising the ordinariness of Eichmann, questioning the authority of the court, and criticising the behaviour of certain Jewish leaders in the early stages of the Holocaust. In the course of those writings, Arendt coined the durable phrase "the banality of evil".
The film boasts gorgeous production values and an immaculate central performance from Barbara Sukowa. Rainer Werner Fassbinder's old sparring partner offers us a genius who – like so many geniuses – can be remarkably unperceptive when engaging with the real world. Though funny and warm in her private life, this version of Arendt is so committed to reason that she utterly fails to see how her words might upset Holocaust survivors. The controversy hits her hard. Axel Milberg is convincingly affectionate as her husband, Heinrich Blücher; flashbacks to an early affair with Martin Heidegger add depth.
It's such a shame that so much of the script is so disappointingly clunky. Characters are constantly acting as mouthpieces for particular arguments and particular political positions. After an angry exchange with her academic superiors, somebody explains (in case we didn't get it) that Hannah Arendt is all reason and no emotion. The offices of the New Yorker seem to have been staffed by people who constantly felt the need to repeat blindingly obvious facts to one another at depressingly regular intervals.
So, the film is somewhat less nuanced than Ms von Trotta's excellent 1986 study of Rosa Luxemburg. But it still manages to fire the intellect and stimulate further researches into Arendt's work. Cautiously recommended.