Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Hannah Arendt: the Philosopher Reports

In her landmark book The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt examined the close kinship between Stalinism and National Socialism.  Surprisingly, it did not cost her many friendships amongst the intelligentsia.  Of course, her think-piece reporting on the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem would be a different matter entirely.  The defining controversy of the philosopher’s career is logically the focus of Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt (trailer here), which releases today on DVD and Blu-ray from Zeitgeist Films.

As the film opens, Arendt has settled into a relatively comfortable life as a naturalized citizen, teaching at the New School and tolerating her husband Heinrich Blücher’s discrete infidelities. The Mossad has just captured Adolf Eichmann—news that electrifies Arendt’s Jewish colleagues.  Intrigued by the implications of the trial, Arendt offers her services to New Yorker editor William Shawn as a correspondent, which he accepts because she is Hannah Arendt.

To the bafflement of old friends, the frustrated Arendt becomes preoccupied with Eichmann’s bureaucratic blandness and his willingness to surrender his status as an individual.  It seems rather strange how divisive her resulting theory of the “banality of evil” was at the time, considering how thoroughly it now informs our collective impression of Eichmann and other war criminals of his ilk.  Perhaps even more contentious, her critical observations regarding the miscalculations of some National Socialist appointed “Jewish Councils” to engage in some forms of temporary tactical acquiesce are not as widely held, but they are far from uncommon complaints today.

Von Trotta’s Arendt captures the intellectual swagger of Arendt and her circle, as well as the still relatively buttoned down tenor of the very early 1960’s.  The New School still looks much the same from the outside, but chain-smoking is most likely frowned upon in lecture halls.  It is a quality period production that looks true to the era during the scenes in both New York and Israel.

Frankly, von Trotta and co-writer Pamela Katz are not above playing favorites, portraying Norman Podhoretz as a knee-jerk hyper-ventilator, whereas Mary McCarthy is faultlessly down-to-earth and sympathetic.  Still, the depiction of Arendt, as written by von Trotta & Katz and played by Barbara Sukowa, is remarkably complex and even-handed.  Viewers fully understand just how thoroughly Arendt’s emotions are subservient to her intellect.  What was once a defense mechanism becomes problematic, preventing her from anticipating the furor stemming from her articles.  Von Trotta shrewdly resists the lure of an easy ending, ending the film on a decidedly ambiguous note.

Sukowa is admirably restrained as Arendt, to a degree approaching the tragic.  Yet, she has some deeply human moments, particularly with Klaus Pohl as her disgraced former mentor-lover, Martin Heidegger.  Cerebral and literate, yet rather forgiving of human foibles, Hannah Arendt is a compelling portrait of a difficult figure to do justice on-screen.  Respectfully recommended for those who appreciate intellectual history, Hannah Arendt is now available for home viewing from Zeitgeist Films.