Making Thought Visual

A Review of Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt

Sherry Coman

Margarethe von Trotta has dedicated her life to illuminating the stories of women, both fictional and real. Her films about Rosa Luxemburg (Rosa Luxemburg) and Hildegarde von Bingen (Vision) are at opposite ends of my TIFF 30 year range of experience: I think it was Rosa Luxembourg that first introduced me to von Trotta in the mid-80s and I have followed her ever since. This year von Trotta is back with a biopic of the great German-American political theorist Hannah Arendt, in the film with that title.

Hannah Arendt attempts to be a film entirely about thought — a brave undertaking in a visual medium. Arendt’s life would easily fill out a mini-series: her early relationship with the German philosopher Heidegger alone could be three or four segments. Because she is focused on Arendt’s intellectual achievement, Von Trotta chooses instead to drop us into the American experience of Arendt in the post-war era, picking up her story at the time that Arendt served as a correspondent for The New Yorker magazine to cover the trial in Jerusalem of Adolf Eichmann. The famous Nazi war criminal had helped to design and administrate the “Final Solution”. The movie covers only the events of the trial in 1961, but there are several brief flashbacks to earlier eras.

Several Americans become important in the drama. Nicholas Woodeson plays William Shawn, the then editor of The New Yorker who tries to warn Arendt about the controversy that is coming, and Janet McTeer is back as the American writer Mary McCarthy – her bearing and self-possession reminding me a great deal of her performance as Gertrude Lawrence in the BBC series Daphne. Her defense of Arendt to a group of Princeton intellectuals in a late scene nearly steals the film. She is always a breath of fresh air because she is able to inject humour into what she does, in the same way that Allison Janney does (who would also have been good in this role – much as I adore McTeer and appreciate Woodeson, why are Brits being cast as Americans?). McCarthy’s exchanges of “looks” with Arendt over gossip-intrigue among husbands and friends, convey a lovely sense of the intimacy between these two famous friends, where the screenplay otherwise did not have much time for it.

Barbara Sukowa is wonderful as Arendt, particularly in a climax scene in which she finally breaks her silence and defends her New Yorker articles by explaining more fully what it means for evil to be ‘banal’. The greatest atrocities are committed by those who have abdicated their ‘personhood’ in order to submit to the machine they are cogs in, she tells us. For Arendt, the abdication of personal responsibility and culpability for individual acts, as they participate in a whole, is more inherently demonic than being the architect of these same plans. In this same scene, a student asks her why she describes Eichmann as having committed crimes “against humanity” and not just “against the Jews”. Arendt’s response, that a crime against a Jew is significant as a crime against humanity, allows the film to exonerate her, and locate her safely back in the intellectual realm, but it doesn’t resolve the dilemma of the controversy. Her quest for people to understand “how profoundly important it is to ask these questions” about the nature of evil, finally emerges here, just as a film about thought should: its intellectual premise gathers shape and form and is born in the moment of her delivery. As a result, the critical scene becomes the arrival of the theory, rather than simply a scene in which she vindicates herself against her critics. This kind of subtle control is what makes von Trotta such a fine dramatist, even if her visual style lacks any distinguishing and memorable characteristics. German filmmakers develop a premise better than any other in Europe – and we are carried along in their capable thinking.

Sherry Coman is a doctoral student at the Toronto School of Theology, in the University of Toronto, where she also co-teaches a course entitled Film, Prophecy and Culture with Brian Walsh. She teaches film at Humber College and is a free lance story editor for film.

This review was originally published on Sherry’s blog, hanah dreaming.

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