Margarethe von Trotta’s latest film is frustrating insofar as it can’t seem to find a balancing point between clunky, expositional dialogue that drags on at a painful clip, and beautifully realized and effective human moments. A biopic about one of the 20th century’s most revered and inventive Western thinkers, Hannah Arendt finds itself beleaguered by a need to frame the basic elements of its subject’s most deeply held principles through debates between her and her academic peers. These exchanges provide the film with structure and context, to be sure, but the cost of this structure and context entails sacrificing the integrity of the film’s characters. It’s a pity too, especially considering the impact that so many of this films scenes achieve.
Barbara Sukowa brings a weird mix of dour piety and joyful playfulness to her role as Ms. Arendt, which comes maddeningly close to mitigating the bad vibes resulting from the segments of paint by numbers exposition she’s made to slog through. Flashbacks to her younger days as Martin Heidegger’s favorite student (and illicit lover) are particularly heartfelt and add a non-discursive dimension to her character. The small, tender moments between her and her disgraced mentor — the filmmakers are quick to point out (a couple times) how messed-up it is that Heidegger was totally a Nazi — lend a bit more heft to the appropriately significant amount of time given to her role as a reporter for the New Yorker during the trial of Adolph Eichmann.
Naturally, the lion’s share of Hannah Arendt is devoted to her coverage of the trail in Jerusalem of famed boring war criminal Eichmann, and her subsequent status as persona non grata among the Jewish intellectual community for pointing out the complicity of Jewish community leaders in the betrayal of their own people during the Second World War. The majority of this film’s dramatic tension comes from the alienation Ms. Arendt felt after publishing what she believed to be the most brutally honest portrayal of the Eichmann trial possible. While a ton of people are familiar with her iconic, snappy concept of “the banality of evil,” Arendt’s academic legacy had much more to do with the fallout from her New Yorker piece than any kind of theodicy she might have been getting at. Once considered one of the brightest stars of East Coast academia (represent!), Arendt’s peers largely abandoned her after the public outcry over her piece threatened to turn violent.
Ms. Sukowa excels at capturing the anguish Arendt felt when confronted with the impossibility of reconciling herself to her own people while maintaining her honesty and academic integrity, which as you might imagine is really hard for an actor to do. Compelled by a sense of universal justice, Arendt wrote the truth she experienced during that trial in Jerusalem, and where the film really works is in refusing to paint its title character as a martyr, which would’ve been exceedingly easy to do, considering that almost total abandonment she endured after penning that New Yorker piece.
Drawing upon the talents of its star, Hannah Arendt is at times an unequivocally pleasant film to behold, but suffers irreparably from some shamefully poor handling of the historical context which von Trotta felt necessary to include in her film. What we’re left with at times plays out something like a filmed version of the Summa Theologiae, where points and counterpoints are neatly laid out on top of a loosely put together narrative framework. Arendt and Sukowa both deserve better.