Hannah Arendt

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A look at the life of philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt, who reported for The New Yorker on the war crimes trial of the Nazi Adolf Eichmann.

Release Year: 2012

Rating: 7.1/10 (789 voted)

Director: Margarethe von Trotta


A look at the life of philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt, who reported for The New Yorker on the war crimes trial of the Nazi Adolf Eichmann.

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Filming Locations: Israel

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User Review

A real gem!

Rating: 9/10

Hannah Arendt (2012)

Few movies based on historical figures manage to combine a good sense
of character with a first-rate story. Hannah Arendt is an exception. It
is directed by Margarethe von Trotta, who had focused on such diverse
(and strong) women of history as the nun and mystic Hildegard von
Bingen and the leftist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg. Her latest film is
the story of one key episode in the life of Hannah Arendt, the
German-American philosopher and political theorist. But Hannah Arendt
transcends the bounds of "feminist" filmmaking. It is a work that puts
before the viewer key questions about the nature of evil, about
acceptance of authority, and about personal responsibility. At the same
time it is a fine piece of storytelling.

Arendt was a German Jew who had studied under the noted philosopher
Martin Heidegger, and who had a romantic relationship with him that
soured when the Nazis came to power and Heidegger publicly supported
them. She soon left Germany for France but in 1940 was imprisoned by
the Vichy regime in the detention camp in Gurs. Escaping after a few
weeks imprisonment, she fled with her husband to the U.S. Throughout
and after the war she was active in Jewish causes, including the
Zionist movement. In the 1950s she began a career of writing and
teaching, which included appointments at such universities as
Princeton, Yale and the University of Chicago. She became noted for two
popular books, The Origins of Totalitarianism and The Human Condition.

The film deals with one short period in her life, Arendt's reporting on
the 1961 Adolf Eichmann trial in Jerusalem for the New Yorker magazine,
coverage she later turned into a book. In here account she spoke of
"the banality of evil," evil done without thinking, because people were
"following orders." Arendt's suggestion was that Eichmann was evil not
so much because he was a monster, but because he was a mindless
bureaucrat. Although she did not disagree with the guilty verdict or
Eichmann's hanging, she was critical of the conduct of the trial. Even
more controversial was her submission that some Jewish leaders
contributed to the magnitude of the Holocaust by their complicity with
the authorities. While she recognized the futility of open rebellion,
she suggested that less cooperation would at least have saved more
lives. Such suggestions, especially coming from a prominent Jew,
provoked a firestorm of criticism, and threatened both Arendt's career
and lifelong friendships. The movie becomes not just about a single
life, but about freedom of expression – the sometimes harsh clash
between ideas and fixed opinions – and the great personal costs this
can involve.

Still, a movie that focuses so much on one individual requires a superb
piece of acting. Director von Trotta gets this from Barbara Sukowa, who
played both Hildegard and Rosa Luxemburg in her earlier films. Sukowa
brings to the screen not only a supremely intelligent woman, but a very
principled and determined one. At the same time she portrays a woman
who can be tender and compassionate, and understanding even of her
detractors. To blend such widely divergent qualities is no easy task,
but Sukowa succeeds in anchoring them securely in the character she
plays. Axel Milberg as Heinrich Blücher, Arendt's husband, more
reserved, but supportive and protective, is equally credible. Another
solid performance comes from Janet McTeer as the political activist,
author, and Hannah's steadfast friend, Mary McCarthy. Included also
among her inner circle was her secretary, Lotte, played very
sympathetically and competently by Julia Jentsch. Two longtime Jewish
friends, one in New York, Hans Jonas, and another in Jerusalem (also
her former teacher), Kurt Blumenfeld, are very well represented by
Ulrich Noethen and Michael Degen. And a very unrepentant and
unapologetic Martin Heidegger is played by Klaus Pohl.

In addition to good acting a film that deals with the realm of ideas
also requires a finely tuned screenplay and talented direction so that
it does not just show pictures of "talking heads." Director von Trotta
cooperated with Pam Katz on the script, and what they produced is
obviously a labor of love. The situation of ideas against the
background of such horrific concrete acts as genocide, and in
particular against the showpiece trial of Eichmann, brings them into
contact with the very real world. That reality is heightened by the
decision not to dramatize Eichmann himself, but to show the genuine
article as he appears in the TV footage of the trial. There is such
genuine horror there, and yet such obvious banality, as to give
Arendt's musings real weight.

In the end the film obliges the viewer to confront the questions Arendt
is trying to raise. Are the roots of evil obvious or can they be far
more subtle? Where does responsibility begin, and who in a society must
take responsibility for the acts of the whole body? The film does not
preach, but it certainly raises vital questions. A real gem! Hannah
Arendt premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on
September 11, 2012. The movie will go into general release on January
17, 2013.