By Don Simpson | May 29, 2013
Director: Margarethe von Trotta
Writers: Margarethe von Trotta, Pam Katz
Starring: Barbara Sukowa, Axel Milberg, Janet McTeer, Julia Jentsch, Ulrich Noethen, Michael Degen, Nicholas Woodeson, Victoria Trauttmansdorff, Klaus Pohl
Hannah Arendt begins as Adolf Eichmann is captured during a covert action by the Israeli police. Eichmann is whisked away to Jerusalem to be tried and punished for the war crimes committed against Jewish people by the Nazi government during World War II. Hannah Arendt (Barbara Sukowa) immediately submits a pitch to the New Yorker to travel to Israel to cover the trial. The New Yorker editor William Shawn (Nicolas Woodeson) jumps at the opportunity to have the highly regarded New School political theory professor — and author of The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) and The Human Condition (1958) — covering such a landmark story for them.
A German Jew, Arendt was interned during WWII in a concentration camp in France but escaped, eventually emigrating to the United States with her husband Heinrich Blücher (Axel Milberg). Despite her firsthand experience with the Nazis, Arendt’s approach to the Eichmann trial is nothing short of humanist. Arendt sees Eichmann as a government employee who took an oath in which he promised to blindly abide by the Nazi agenda. Even as a high-ranking SS officer, Eichmann merely played a small-yet-integral part of a much larger bureaucratic machine. Eichmann coordinated the transportation of Jews during WWII to various concentration camps, but it could not be proven that he ever participated firsthand in the gruesome mass murders. He was just a paper-pusher, rendered unable to think for himself by the Nazi system. Eichmann’s thoughtlessness is precisely what attracted Arendt to his case.
Witnessing Eichmann’s trial led Arendt to conclude that evil grew from the thoughtlessness of ordinary people who obeyed orders without consideration of the consequences of their actions. The problem is, a hyper-intellectualized lecture about “the banality of evil” was not exactly the type of coverage of Eichmann’s trial that people — especially Jews — wanted to read in the New Yorker. They wanted journalistic reporting on the trial, not a philosophy lesson on the nature of evil. Arendt was also quite critical of the actions of some Jewish leaders during the Holocaust, thus igniting tremendous controversy and animosity toward her. Arendt was considered to be snobbish, cold and unsympathetic towards Jews; but, in her own defense, Arendt explained that anyone who writes about the Nazis and the Holocaust should attempt to understand what turns seemingly ordinary people such as Eichmann into tools of totalitarianism.
Writer-director Margarethe von Trotta’s approach to Arendt is as calculated and pragmatic as the philosophies of the subject it so minutely contemplates. Rather than functioning as a frothy bio-pic, Hannah Arendt focuses on the shaping of Arendt’s concept of the “the banality of evil.” Practically every line of dialogue serves as a building block for Arendt’s ideologies and philosophies. By way of the fiery debates that Arendt enjoys with her colleagues and friends, we witness as Arendt forms her hypotheses; and as we observe Arendt slowly digesting the transcripts from Eichmann’s trial, we practically see the proverbial wheels turning inside her brain. Von Trotta also allows us to flashback to conversations between Arendt and her teacher-turned-lover Martin Heidegger that also fueled her opinions on Eichmann.
As cold and emotionless Arendt seemed at the time, in retrospect she appears to be a humanist whose philosophies looked beyond religious and political agendas, who could separate the individual from the masses. It would certainly not hurt for our modern day politicians to take a few lessons from her.