‘The banality of evil’ is a phrase so common today – an idea that explains so much of what is wrong with the world – that it’s surprising to realise how radical and threatening it was when Hannah Arendt first coined the phrase to describe Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in 1963. Even today, the work of Arendt (who died in 1975) continues to provoke angry debate, and the book she wrote based on her observations of Eichmann’s trial, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, has only recently been translated into Hebrew.
Hannah Arendt, directed by New German Cinema’s most famous feminist auteur, Margarethe von Trotta (Marianne and Juliane, Rosenstrasse), is once again fuelling the fires of controversy with its defiantly supportive depiction of the German-Jewish intellectual and her idea that evil, rather than being a seductive and grand act of will, can just as easily result from bureaucratic mindlessness and an abdication of individual responsibility.
Despite its definitive title, Hannah Arendt is not an overarching biopic. Instead it focuses on the four years between 1961 and 1964 in which Arendt covered the Eichmann trial with a series of articles for the New Yorker magazine (later compiled in the book), and the subsequent scandal and personal vilification that broke out after this publication – including the breakdown of some of her closest and most important friendships.
The film introduces its heroine (played splendidly by Barbara Sukowska, who speaks mostly in strongly-accented English) as an already famous thinker and teacher, living in New York in an unconventional marriage with Heinrich Blücher (Axel Milberg). Confident, outspoken and yet vulnerable, she’s surrounded by loyal friends, including her beloved secretary, Lotte Köhler (Julia Jentsch), fellow German émigré Hans Jonas (Ulrich Noethen) and the famous American writer Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer, who plays every woman’s ideal best friend – smart, glamorous, fiercely supportive and fond of a jolly good gossip). They’re all deeply concerned when Hannah decides to travel to Jerusalem to cover Eichmann’s trial, worried it will dig up too much pain for the woman who herself barely escaped Hitler’s death camps.
"the film’s greatest flaw is perhaps its dogmatism and unsubtle editing"
Yet when Hannah attends the courtroom (intriguingly depicted through intercut black-and-white footage of the real Eichmann trial), instead of the devil incarnate, she sees a boring and balding ‘nobody’, who sighs and fumbles and whose primary sin is his unwillingness to think for himself. The film fails to engage with later revelations about Eichmann’s deep involvement in the horrors of the Holocaust, instead focusing on Arendt’s courageous adherence to her own vision of the truth and what it told her about power, bureaucracy and the genesis of evil.
As a portrait of a complex woman and a powerful thinker, Hannah Arendt is fascinating. This is what one would expect from von Trotta, whose films (like The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum, which she co-directed with Volker Schlöndorff in 1975, and Rosa Luxemburg, 1986) have always given us strong female characters whose personal lives intersect irrevocably with their political engagement. The script, cinematography and performances all work hard to make interesting the inherently un-cinematic activities of writing, thinking and lecturing. Perhaps it’s just as well Arendt was a famous chain-smoker, for Sukowska’s depiction of her constant sucking, blowing and fidgeting certainly adds drama and movement to many of the film’s more static scenes.
At times oddly paced, the film’s greatest flaw is perhaps its dogmatism and unsubtle editing. A final scene repeatedly cuts between Arendt’s lecture and an adoring female university student listening in rapturous agreement. This rams home the point: that history has, by and large, vindicated Arendt’s idea as an important addition to our understanding of how atrocities are made possible by lazy thinking. Yet despite its heavy-handedness, Hannah Arendt is a film of rare pleasurable intellectual challenge. And for that, it must be praised.