Renowned German actress Barbara Sukowa tackles a tricky character in the new biopic of the philosopher journalist whose writings about war crimes trials brought infamy and death threats.
Stephen A. Russell

13 Mar 2014 - 4:18 PM  UPDATED 13 Mar 2014 - 4:28 PM

Lauded German actress Barbara Sukowa has inhabited many complex characters over the course of her 40-year acting career. From her early days in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s cult ‘80s TV hit Berlin Alexanderplatz and his 1982 German Film Award champion Lola, to no fewer than six features with writer/director Margarethe von Trotta, including a Best Actress award at Cannes for 1986’s Rosa Luxemburg.

It’s her latest starring turn, however, as the titular German-American political theorist and philosopher in Hanna Arendt, infamous for her New Yorker articles on the war crimes trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann and her subsequent book Eichmann in Jerusalem, that proved most difficult. “It was scary,” Sukowa admits. “Hannah is an intellectual giant.”

Obsessed with the nature of power in totalitarian regimes, Arendt coined the phrase “the banality of evil,” in reference to Eichmann and his defence that he was merely an SS pen-pusher, not personally responsible for the horrors of the Holocaust. Arendt was roundly attacked for her belief that there was some merit to his claim, and she also laid some of the blame for the atrocities at the feet of Jewish collaborators, resulting in a furious barrage of letters that included not-so-veiled death threats and had the New Yorker’s phone ringing off the hook for days.

While Sukowa undertook a great deal of research for the role, she waited for von Trotta and US co-writer Pam Katz to finish the screenplay first, because she wanted to come to Arendt as an audience would, without necessarily having all the background details. She also avoided watching the black and white footage of the Eichmann trial. “I was waiting for quite a while, sitting on hot coals,” Sukowa says.

Once the script was in her hands, Sukowa devoured everything she could get her hands on, from biographies on Arendt to her own writings including The Origins of Totalitarianism, as well as Arendt’s personal correspondence with her husband, friends and colleagues including Mary McCarthy, played in he film by Janet McTeer (The Woman in Black, Albert Nobbs), and Lotte Köhler, portrayed by Julia Jentsch (I Served the King of England, The Edukators). Sukowa also hired a young professor from Columbia University to bone up on philosophical writings from Plato to Kant.

"In Germany of course, the Holocaust will always be in our history and a big stain on our lives.”

“I had to know what she was thinking about,” Sukowa says. “If I was thinking about scrambled eggs, it wouldn’t work as well. Maybe other actors can do it without that, but I felt I had to, and the subject was really interesting to me. I wanted to learn as much as possible. I love work where I can find out more about the world and its history.”

Von Trotta had to fight to cast Sukowa in the lead role, with a lot of resistance from funders who were unconvinced by the star’s lack of a physical likeness with Arendt. There was some brief consideration of using facial prosthetics that was abandoned pretty quickly, with Sukowa agreeing that these things can often prove more distracting then helpful.

“When I first watched videos of Hannah I tried to really lower my voice,” Sukowa says. “She was a heavy smoker all her life, but I would never sound like that. I imitated her gestures too, but there are things that don’t work on screen because you lose your own authenticity. You can only go so far. I thought ‘forget all about it, it’s about what she’s thinking.’”

A deeply intelligent movie, Hanna Arendt isn’t afraid of silent pauses, allowing the audience to watch Arendt deep in thought. There’s plenty of robust debate about the merits of Arendt’s opinions on Eichmann too, and the film elaborates on her early relationship with German philosopher Martin Heidegger who went on to join the Nazi party. Von Trotta’s film challenges us to consider its central moral dilemma without being heavy-handed.

So what does Sukowa make of Arendt’s views on Eichman? “I think to investigate the way she did was very valid; how right she was on that particular person I cannot decide,” she says. “There are a lot of authors out there who really challenged Hannah’s opinions. I’ve read some of them, and I’m not completely convinced, but what I would say is that even if she wasn’t 100 per cent right on whether Eichmann’s evil was really that he was a bureaucrat or someone who knew exactly what he was doing, that type of person definitely did exist. In Germany of course, the Holocaust will always be in our history and a big stain on our lives.”

Sukowa met several of the surviving real life figures in the movie, including Arendt’s long-time collaborator Köhler, who gave Sukowa her blessing. “She said Hannah would probably have liked it very much,” Sukowa says. “I got the feeling that they thought Hannah was in good hands.”