Hannah Arendt von Trotta

In Margarethe von Trotta’s new film, three German expats sit in a Jerusalem café quoting Faust and discussing the trial of the SS Lieutenant Colonel Adolf Eichmann. One of them posits—to great consternation—that the problem of evil is less complicated than even Faust makes it out to be. “Eichmann is no Mephisto,” says Hannah Arendt (Barbara Sukowa). She's distinguishing between evil as a mythologized, even seductive quality, and the thing she will argue it to be: an almost forgetful trait, defined by an inability, on the part of an individual swept up in the inverted logic of fascism, to make moral decisions with any real autonomy.

Von Trotta’s film focuses on the period of Arendt’s life spent reporting on the Eichmann trial for The New Yorker in a series of controversial essays that would first garner damaging criticism, and later, in a different era, praise, if still of a cautious kind. Von Trotta cuts between archival footage from the actual trial and scenes of Sukowa's Arendt watching from the press room as she considers, removed from the emotional influence of the courtroom, what is behind the moral problem of trying one seemingly superfluous man for deeply evil crimes. Arendt decides, in the end, that contrary to the popular Western belief that evil is necessarily a force of will, it can arise just as easily out of a kind of abdication of will, a rejection of individual thought. Her article is misread as anti-Semitic; it is felt that, in suggesting Jewish leaders might have acted differently in earlier stages of dealing with the Nazi government, she is “blaming the victims.”

Arendt as a character seems almost custom-made for von Trotta, a director interested in women of embattled reputation, and the oft problematic coupling of love and politics in the face of, and as a threat to, individualism. She dealt with it first, and perhaps most interestingly, in 1975’s The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (co-directed by von Trotta’s then-husband Volker Schlöndorff) which depicts how a young woman’s love affair with a terrorist leads to her privacy being brutally invaded by the police and gutter press, eventually spurring her to the kind of violence the government had hoped, by this invasion, to punish. In von Trotta’s 2009 film Vision, starring Sukowa as the 12th-century nun Hildegard von Bingen, religion and politics never entirely escape each other’s influence—notably in the case of von Bingen’s almost-lover, a young nun whose ambition betrays them both in the end. Love, of course, suffers in both films, and male and female are pitted against each other in ways that have little to do with sex or power, but with reputation.

Von Trotta Hannah Arendt

In von Trotta’s version of Arendt’s life, however, the complications of love stay neatly out of the way. Arendt’s relationship with her husband (like her, a refugee from Germany and Vichy France) instead acts as a useful buffer against the conflicts already caused by her individualism, making a further compromise between love and politics thankfully unnecessary. Arendt’s husband is a pleasantly rounded character, somewhat backgrounded to that of Arendt herself. This refreshing portrayal is typical of the film as a whole, in which all crucially innovative elements reflect Arendt’s actual story rather than von Trotta’s rendering of it.

For Hannah Arendt, and in certain respects Vision, is a variation on a pre-existing formula, namely the “great man” films Hollywood was so fond of producing in the late Thirties. These typically excerpt and condense the life of an influential thinker, pitting him and his ideas against the world, and positioning him in a god-like, almost clairvoyant pose in contrast to his own time. The difference here, of course, is that the great man is a woman. In most other respects, Hannah Arendt strongly adheres to the structure of The Life of Emile Zola.

This isn’t as problematic as it might have been because von Trotta’s modification to the formula is an important one, allowing a subtle feminism to come through. It also—in a bizarre twist—means that the film presents an elegant foil to Arendt’s own thesis about autonomous thought. Part of the knack of the “great man” film is that it forces the viewer into a blind identification with its subject. The formula is seductive, offering a chance to recognize the preordained “rightness” of a person who, in their own time and by their contemporaries, was regarded as being startlingly wrong.

Arendt, through the film’s glamorizing lens, becomes a character impossible not to identify or agree with. From the vantage point of the present, the film makes it hard to see her as anything but right—unable, crucially, to think for ourselves. It leaves one wondering what Arendt the philosopher would think of this cinematic phenomenon—and whether or not she would find it as dangerous a method of storytelling as it has become.