A Look at Margarethe von Trotta’s Classically Controversial Biopic: ‘Hannah Arendt’

as part of #52FilmsByWomen in 2016 – see my full list here!

Possibly the most influential and important philosophical thinker of the 20th century, condensing the most tumultuous life of Hannah Arendt into a two hour biopic was never going to be an easy feat. Who better to try, though, than Germany’s first ‘feminist’ filmmaker and auteur – Margarethe von Trotta. Not that she thought of herself as a feminist, and neither did Hannah Arendt for that matter.

There are many feminist readings of both von Trotta and Arendt’s works, but this doesn’t take away from the fact that neither woman self-identified as a feminist. In Arendt’s case, she concerned herself with humanitarianism rather than feminism and for von Trotta, she was simply making films about women not feminist statements. Both women were at the forefront of industries dominated almost entirely by men (philosophy and film-making) and both women struggled against popular views and opinions to create influential works of their own. It’s easy to see why von Trotta may have been drawn to the idea of telling the story of Hannah Arendt, considering the similarities between them.

The 2012 film explores Arendt’s covering of the Eichmann trial in the 1960s. Arendt, at the time a professor and journalist, pitches herself as a Jewish former-refugee eager to cover the story of the trial in Israel for the New York Times. Considering her previous body of work (The Origins of Totalitarianism) and her influential status, the skeptical editors at the Times give her the role. Arendt travels to Israel to watch the trial, expecting Adolf Eichmann to be a monster, pure evil incarnate. What she discovers is that Eichmann is just a man. A ‘bureaucrat’ as she calls him, someone who is not an evil monster, but someone who has followed the rules and crossed every t, dotted every i. A pencil pusher – if you will.

This is where Arendt coined the phrase ‘the banality of evil’ (here’s a handy Youtube video that sums the theory up nicely). After watching with disbelief at Eichmann’s defence, Arendt concludes that it is the lack of thinking, the ability to follow orders without question that is the real evil. On publishing her findings, Hannah is cast out by the Jewish community, by the Israeli governing body and by her own best friends, Hans.

Of course, her 5 articles in the New York Times go far deeper and are far more complex than I am able to reiterate, or possibly understand. The film itself, attempts to explain her theories but wisely decides to stick to the simpler aspects of Arendt’s philosophy – otherwise we might as well be watching a lecture rather than a dramatic narrative film.

It is interesting that Hannah Arendt is a fictional film, rather than a documentary. When thinking about Arendt’s life, career and philosophies, it seems that creating a documentary about her life may have been a better (or easier) route to go down. It would have allowed for a simple explanation of her theories, an overview of her life and to give context to the trial in Israel. However, von Trotta’s choice to go all in for the big, dramatic biopic actually prevents us from getting bogged down with the academia and helps us to understand the character of Hannah herself. Obviously assisted greatly by Barbara Sukowa’s quiet and impressive performance, we watch Hannah as a human first, and as an icon of philosophy later.

Hannah Arendt is a pretty straightforward biopic; shot very classically, without pushing many boundaries in terms of it’s filmic style. Arguably, von Trotta could have been slightly more experimental with the film. Hannah Arendt feels like the biopics of yesteryear, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It feels aged, but this is fitting seeing as the events of Eichmann’s trial and Arendt’s subsequent articles on evil occurred in 1961. The slower pacing and editing fit into that era of cinema; the film actually feels like it was made in 1961 rather than simply representing the time period. Barbara Sukowa as Hannah Arendt is quite clearly the standout performance throughout the film.

It’s not that the other characters are not engaging, just that Sukowa manages to capture Arendt as both mysterious and transparent at the same time. It is within the silent moments, when Sukowa puffs purposefully on a cigarette, that we realise Arendt is constantly thinking and evaluating. Hannah Arendt is a short snapshot of Arendt’s life; she goes from being an accomplished professor and journalist who doesn’t really have anything to prove, to being outcast from her community for her controversial views.  It would have been far easier for the biopic to cover her whole life, as we could have identified with younger Hannah easier than accomplished adult Hannah, yet watching this short part of her life in such depth actually helps us understand her better.

Hannah Arendt never acknowledged herself as a feminist, in fact she probably never acknowledged that she was a woman. It probably never occurred to her that the  reaction from her own community, the media and various other influential thinkers to her ideas about the ‘banality of evil’ was so severe because she was a woman. Of course, her ideas themselves were pretty radical (given that the Holocaust was in such recent memory for many people, and that she was Jewish), but the extent to which she was ostracised from her own community and friends? It’s hard to imagine that, had Hannah Arendt been male, her philosophies would have been met which such vitriol and anger.

Women are supposed to be emotional, mothering and compassionate above everything. Even women philosophers, and Hannah Arendt was no exception. Men, for years, had been philosophising the most radical ideas – incomprehensible to anyone with a notion of ‘morality’ (Murray Rothbard, John Mill, Plato just for starters).  The backlash to Arendt’s ideas about evil can be seen as a statement about how women are supposed to be innately compassionate. To say that that the evils of the Holocaust may be down to the pencil-pushers who were dedicated to bureaucracy hardly encompasses that emotionality that women are supposed to be born with.

 Now I just need to watch Rosa Luxemborg!

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