Hannah Arendt

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Review by Jane Freebury

This could have gone wide as a more conventional life story of influential 20th century philosopher, Hannah Arendt, the first to write on the Third Reich in the context of western civilisation. Instead director and co-writer Margarethe von Trotta has homed in on the four-year period that brought about the phrase that Arendt is widely and controversially remembered for, ‘the banality of evil’.

In 1961 the editors at The New Yorker magazine couldn’t quite believe their luck when Arendt (a transformed Barbara Sukowa) contacted them, suggesting she cover the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi war criminal who had major responsibility for the holocaust. Eichmann had been discovered in hiding in Argentina and was due to stand trial in Israel for crimes against humanity.

Here was Arendt, distinguished academic, author of tomes on totalitarianism etc, offering to do some long-form journalism for them. With her nicotine habit she certainly looked the part. In any event, she didn’t meet the deadlines, if she ever had any, but she certainly made their commission worthwhile.

The conclusions that she reached observing Eichmann in the dock ran counter to orthodoxies about the nature of evil. The experience of watching Eichmann conduct himself at the trial led her to conclude he ‘wasn’t spooky at all’ but ‘a nobody’ who spoke in awful administrative jargon, claiming he was only following orders.
This reminds me of how some filmgoers responded to that excellent film of 2004, Downfall, an account of the last days Hitler spent in the bunker before he took his life and ended WWII. The portrayal of the fuhrer as functioning human being rather than monster or brute caused offence. That such a man could appear terrifyingly normal was impossible to accept.

Instead of an actor in the role of Eichmann, von Trotta has the man play himself. Black-and-white television footage of the trial blend with her staged drama as the former Nazi ducks and weaves under questionning. Have to agree that von Trotta made the right decision here, though this is just about the only risk she takes in the area of craft.

Despite the narrow window, much of Arendt’s remarkable life gets a mention. The affair as a student with philosopher Martin Heidegger, the flight from the march of Nazism in Europe, and her new life as an esteemed academic in the US. Touchingly, von Trotta, who is adding yet another story about a strong woman to a filmography that includes The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum and Rosa Luxemburg, has allowed us to see that Arendt was fortunate in marriage (her second), and secure in her husband’s affection. It adds a homely touch to this sober study of a big name in political theory.

In a capsule: A fine sober study, if conventional technically, of a key political theorist of last century who challenged orthodox thinking on the nature of evil.

4 stars