Hannah Arendt (2012)

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There’s a rather clunky scene early on in Hannah Arendt (2012), one whose purpose seems clearly to provide a quick bio of Hannah for the novice viewer. It takes place inside the office of William Shawn (Nicholas Woodsen), editor of The New Yorker. He has just received an offer from Hannah Arendt (Barbara Sukowa) to cover the Adolph Eichmann trial for them. Francis Wells (Megan Gay) scoffs, asking who she is. Another editor, Jonathan Schell (Tom Leick), scolds her. “She wrote The Origins of Totalinarianism!” Shawn adds, “It’s one of the most important books of the 20th century!” Aside from the fact that there is no way an editor of The New Yorker didn’t know who Hannah Arendt was in 1960, and trying desperately to ignore the forced New York accents of all three non-American actors in the scene, the main problem lies in the scene so clumsily listing Arendt’s creds for the audience. It is the main failing of the movie encapsulated into that one scene. Throughout the film, characters will constantly state and┬árestate the obvious but at its core is the real life figure and trial of Eichmann, and the moral questions surrounding that trial, that make Hannah Arendt an arresting movie to watch. At other times, it is as prosaic a biopic as any ever made. And through it all, Barbara Sukowa’s masterful performance keeps the audience engaged.

The movie begins in May of 1960 with the capture of Adolph Eichmann in Argentina by agents of Mossad. After he is brought to Israel to stand trial for crimes against humanity, Hannah Arendt, noted philosopher and writer (except to that one New Yorker editor), gets the go ahead from the American magazine to travel to Jerusalem to cover the trial. Having a German-Jew giving a first hand account of the trial is exactly the angle that editor Shawn is looking for and hopes the piece will be explosive. It is, but not for the reasons he thinks.

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As the trial progresses, Arendt is transfixed by the mediocrity of Eichmann. She marvels at the utter indifference he displays to the consequences of his work. To the world, he was one of the major contributors, organizers and enablers of the Holocaust. To him, he was just a bureaucrat processing paperwork. He authorized train transports of mass numbers of Jews to death camps but argues that he didn’t actually exterminate them, he just authorized their transport. What happened to them after that was not on his head.

Of course, if you know the end result of authorizing someone’s transport is that they will be murdered, then it is on your head but what Arendt finds fascinating is that Eichmann doesn’t seem to be offering that argument as a possible way out, he seems to honestly believe it. He has stopped thinking, she argues, and did so a long time ago. Not “stopped thinking” as in his brain no longer functions. He stopped as in he had no internal conversations about consequences. He took the minutes for the Wannsee Conference but didn’t think about it beyond that of an administrative duty. He authorized transports because that was his job. He didn’t think about the destination. In other words, he wasn’t “just following orders” like the defendants at the Nuremberg trials, he was just doing his job and that job didn’t technically, physically kill anyone. His justification process could only be arrived at, Arendt argued, by a slow, methodical process in which every aspect of the hideous crime had been normalized. First, laws are passed stripping German-Jews of their rights. Then they are ghettoized. Then they are sent to camps. By the time we get to Eichmann and others like him, they are just authorizing transports and signing documents. The magnitude of what is actually happening has been dwarfed by time and routine.

Margarethe von Trotta, noted New German Cinema director who debuted with the great The Lost Honor of Katherina Blum (1975), makes several key choices in the film that work to make the film only partly successful. Her most successful choice is to not reenact the trial of Eichmann but simply show the actual trial footage and explain away the black and white video by having characters in the movie watch it on tv. This, in turn, leads to a choice of decidedly lesser success, the decision to constantly show Hannah Arendt thoughtfully watching the trial on tv. We are repeatedly shown Sukowa furrow her brow, and steel her gaze, as Eichmann testifies. It starts to break the fourth wall after a while, as we stop seeing Arendt and imagine von Trotta just out of our sight saying to Sukowa, “Okay, we need a 17th shot of you looking like you’re listening to something that is really making you think. And… action!”

Another choice that works only sporadically is the decision to tell the majority of the story via Arendt arguing about the meaning of it all with friends and colleagues. The arguments themselves are both worthy and fascinating but only to the extent that any thoughtful viewer wants to engage in them as an active participant. That is to say, I love having these kinds of philosophical arguments about evil but watching someone else have them in three and four minute scenes where we are given well honed talking points is more frustrating than illuminating. As a result, we are given little about Hannah Arendt and her personal life that would inform her writing. We can all read what she wrote before and after the movie so the movie should give us a glimpse as to what comprised Hannah’s character. It does this only in brief flashbacks and remarks about her relationship with Martin Heidegger (Klaus Pohl). The choice to go with the endless arguments over the background is an unfortunate one.

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Still, the movie works because Barbara Sukowa is indeed a captivating presence and plays Arendt with a mixture of fortitude and insecurity all at once. She is absolute in her arguments while doubting her own motivations for pursuing those arguments in the first place. This is shown well in the near final scene of the movie as she argues with an old friend who is turning her own past against her. That we have to wait until almost the very end of the movie to get this splendid dichotomy on full display is a loss to the work as a whole but not irredeemable. Sukowa’s strong presence keeps us going through it all. Hannah Arendt is a fine biopic and confronts many of the tough questions surrounding Arendt’s conclusions that led her to coin the brilliantly evocative phrase, “the banality of evil” in association with not only Eichmann but how the Holocaust on the whole could have happened, but it could have been so much more. Of course, without Sukowa, it also could have been so much less.

Greg Ferrara

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9 Responses Hannah Arendt (2012)
Posted By CHRISTOPHER BOWEN : July 28, 2017 1:41 pm

The most significant and controversial result of Eichmann in Jerusalem was that Jewish prisoners managed and abetted the genocide within the camps. That Jewish leaders in Vienna and other locations used Jewish community police to round up and force Jews to go to the railway stations for transport to the extermination camps. That had Jewish leadership done nothing to abet the roundup, Germans would never have had enough personnel to divert from the war to complete the Holocaust. The response by Jews worldwide was to condemn and discredit Arendt. This film chose only the banality of evil theme, not the substantial research of this most brilliant 20th Century thinker. The film is a travesty and waste of time.

Posted By Doug : July 28, 2017 2:18 pm

I’m among the great unwashed-I had never heard of Hannah Arendt nor this film.
Greg wrote: “Hannah Arendt is a fine biopic” and I’m sure that it is that-but should a complaint be lodged against any ‘biographical’ film for what was left out? Or for not promoting a particular view?
The duty of a film maker is to make a film. Love or hate the film-that is our job as viewers.

Posted By Emgee : July 28, 2017 4:00 pm

I’ve never been a great fan of biopics, and one reason is mentioned in your review. That is, people talking about abstract concepts that are near impossible to act out. Beethoven composing or Einstein developing his theory of relativity do not make for a riveting movie. Tha’s why we have documentaries.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 28, 2017 4:19 pm

Well, Christopher, I was going a little easy on it, as I don’t like to write up any movie if I don’t have something good to say about it as well but I see your point. They do cover the reasons she was so hated by the Jewish community, even covering her book being banned in Israel for that very reason, but like everything else in the film, it’s given nothing more than surface treatment. The actual footage of Eichmann and Sukowa’s performance are pretty much the whole movie for me.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 28, 2017 4:23 pm

Doug, I certainly agree we should take the movie as it is and review it that way but as it is, it is fairly lacking. I was actually reading through The Origins of Totalitarianism a few days after watching it and thinking about how surface the movie really was, on the one hand, but also how futile. Which brings me to Emgee’s point. Covering everything about her philosophy or even just her coverage of the Eichmann trial becomes simply dramatizing her arguments and if that’s all it does, why not just read her work or watch a documentary?

Posted By CHRISTOPHER BOWEN : July 28, 2017 4:30 pm

No criticism of the reviewer, just the film and the dumbing down inevitable when dealing with a great thinker and trying to make a commercial product. Arendt was the greatest political thinker of the 20th Century. The Human Condition, Origins…, Between Past and Future, all her remarkable books and articles are supurb and enlightening. Let’s hope she never goes out of print.

Posted By Doug : July 28, 2017 7:17 pm

This is pinging my radar-”Movie as Manifesto: The Fountainhead”
Any similarities to this film, as ideologies are made…well…manifest…through an art form?
Which brings me to “Starship Troopers”. Heinlein was not yet a masterful storyteller when he wrote that book, and he wanted to get some ideologies out of his system. He had one character ‘accidentally’ overhear a conversation between two others…which went on for two and a half chapters. Riveting.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 28, 2017 8:27 pm

Christopher, understood. The dumbing down process is exactly why avoiding the specifics and focusing on her character would have made for a better movie than trying to give the movie a philosophical premise and then doing nothing much with it.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 28, 2017 8:31 pm

Doug,no similarities in the movies, no. The Fountainhead is a series of platitudes while Hannah Arendt is an attempt to define Hannah’s outlook based on Eichmann’s trial but only going so far as to provide some arguments among the characters and lots of really bad shots of Hannah “thinking” as she watches Eichmann. The Fountainhead is also a hell of a lot more entertaining and beautiful to look at, even if it is absolutely insane at the same time.

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