Movie Review: Hannah Arendt (2012)
I knew the phrase “banality of evil” but I didn’t know it was controversial. I simply thought it said something meaningful about human nature generally and the Holocaust specifically. To kill six million, you need more than monsters; you need bureaucrats. You need people to keep the trains running.
I also knew Arendt’s reporting on the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem first appeared in William Shawn’s The New Yorker; but I didn’t know Arendt (Barbara Sukowa) was a friend of Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer), that she was a well-known political theorist/philosopher, and that she had been a student and lover of Martin Heidegger. I didn’t know Arendt’s various philosophies—nor Heidegger’s for that matter. I still don’t. I didn’t know Heidegger had Nazi issues.
So I learned all of these things watching “Hannah Arendt,” a 2012 film with mixed pedigree (Germany, Luxemburg, France), directed by Margarethe von Trotta (“Rosenstrasse”), and written by von Trotta and Pamela Katz (ditto).
What I didn’t learn? Why Arendt’s articles were controversial in the first place. I get it ... but don’t.
Here are some of the complaints we hear in the film.
“Eichmann not an anti-Semite? That’s absurd!” says Arendt’s friend, Kurt Blumenfeld, living in Israel, where Eichmann is put on trial.
“You don’t need to be smart or powerful to behave like a monster,” says Hans Jonas, a German-born philosopher living in New York City, where Hannah lives.
“That’s Hannah Arendt: all cleverness and no feeling” says Norman, one of her many detractors, superciliously.
Meanwhile, The New Yorker’s editor in chief, William Shawn, is portrayed as a genial human doormat, while another editor, Francis Wells, is portrayed as a domineering harpy who can’t wait to get her claws into Hannah.
Obviously there’s some difficulty in making a movie (a visual presentation) about someone who thinks (a non-visual action). But Hannah doesn’t just think; she talks, and argues, and smokes, and the movie captures all of this, it’s just that the arguments themselves—the movie’s core element—aren’t that interesting. They’re repetitive. She states her case, the other side can’t believe she could feel that way, she’s shocked by their shock, retreats, regroups, states her case again ... and the other side can’t believe she could feel that way.
There are good supporting performances, particularly by Axel Milberg as her husband, Heinrich Blucher, and particularly in a scene where he has a brain aneurysm; it’s one of the most effective renditions of sudden, overwhelming pain I’ve seen on film. I also liked Julia Jentsch (“Sophie Scholl”) as Hannah’s sly, amused secretary. And of course I loved being in a milieu where everyone waited for the next The New Yorker to come out and then discussed it as if it mattered. Instead of, you know, what we have today.
But “Hannah Arendt” isn’t a deep movie. Part of the problem, I suppose, is that she won the argument so overwhelmingly. There’s not much for the opposition to say.