In a summer where mainstream movie offerings seem to be divided between comic book franchises and gross-out comedies, the idea of a biographical film about an intellectual seems borderline radical. Yet this biopic on German-Jewish philosopher/political theorist/professor Hannah Arendt and her controversial consideration of the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann is a welcome oasis of cinematic intelligence in an otherwise vapid movie season.
The film’s primary focus follows Arendt’s coverage of the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem on behalf of The New Yorker. But Arendt’s view of the trial, with its less than imposing Nazi prisoner, challenges Arendt to consider Eichmann’s character. Expecting a monster, she found what she described as a "nobody," and her consideration of his role in the Holocaust resulted in a five-part article, later reprinted as the 1963 book "Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil."
But Arendt’s view of Eichmman, along with her pointed observations on the activities of some Jewish leaders in Germany and Poland during the Holocaust era, resulted in a firestorm of controversy among Jewish Americans and Israelis. Arendt firmly stood her ground, which her detractors viewed as evidence of cold arrogance and blatant anti-Semitism.
This is clearly a difficult subject to capture in a motion picture, and much of the film finds Arendt observing the spectacle of the Eichmann trial (the captured Nazi leader is shown in black-and-white newsreel footage) and trying to make sense of her voluminous notes and shifting thoughts on the subject. There are some quotes from her controversial writing, but they may be taken out of context in order to play up the more hostile elements of the reaction by Jewish readers to Arendt’s work. Indeed, Arendt is not provided the opportunity to speak at length on her opinions until a somewhat dramatic climax in which she addresses her students in a packed lecture hall.
The film also provides a somewhat awkward number of flashbacks to Arendt’s 1920s relationship with Professor Martin Heidegger; a more interesting aspect of Arendt’s life - her internment in a French detention camp in 1940 and her nick-of-time escape from Europe to the U.S. ahead of the Holocaust - is only mentioned in a few lines of dialogue.
Nonetheless, director Margarethe von Trotta resists all temptation to heat up the drama. She frames Arendt’s work in the context of her world of exclusive New York academia and dinner party debates with fellow German-Jewish refugees, and the film requires the viewer to pay careful attention as issues of morality, guilt, religious fidelity, and pride are volleyed back and forth.
Ultimately, the fuel to this engine is Barbara Sukowa’s subtle performance as Arendt. The actress maintains a unique blend of confidence and dignity that enables her to stand strong as controversy swirls around. Whether the viewer considers Arendt as a hero or a heel is dependent on personal considerations - which, in turn, is a triumph for Sukowa’s ability to capture the deep complexities of this remarkable force of intellectual power.