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Hannah Arendt

Posted by martinteller on July 1, 2013

Hannah Arendt (Barbara Sukowa) was a philosopher and political theorist.  She lived as a German Jew in Berlin, studied under Heidegger (Klaus Pohl) and became his lover, fled to Paris, met and married poet/philosopher Heinrich Blücher (Axel Milberg) and the two moved to New York.  Her books The Origins of Totalitarianism and The Human Condition were influential and highly regarded.  She traveled to Jerusalem in 1961 to cover the Eichmann trial for The New Yorker.  The lengthy piece drew a firestorm of criticism as she seemed to be defending the war criminal as a “banal” form of evil… and also putting some of the blame for the Holocaust on Jewish leaders.

Arendt — who I admittedly knew nothing about going into this movie — is a compelling figure.  Her phrase “the banality of evil” has worked its way into the popular vernacular and as a concept is not only astute but was well ahead of its time.  The human compulsion to demonize evil-doers as grinning monsters savoring their awful deeds masks the fact that most evil is done in the name of bureaucracy by unthinking “nobodies” who “just follow orders”.  Her ideas were stimulating, daring and relevant.

And she deserves a much better picture than this.  When the film focuses on Arendt’s ideas — the development of them, the elucidation of them, the controversy over them — it shines.  The climax, in which Arendt defends her writing to a crowded lecture hall, is by far the movie’s most riveting scene.  But there’s a lot of superfluous fluff surrounding the good parts.  Director Margarethe von Trotta appears to be peeking under the rocks of Arendt’s life, poking around for something interesting.  The relationship with Heidegger is revealed in a bland series of unenlightening flashbacks.  These needed to be either fleshed out with something of significance or eliminated entirely.  Likewise, too much time is spent on her relationship with Heinrich, which is somewhat charming but provides little of consequence.  The meat of the Arendt story is her writing and her thoughts… the other stuff on the plate here is unfulfilling trimming.

Sukowa (who had small roles in a couple of Fassbinders and a larger one in Von Trier’s Europa) turns in a good performance.  Not a great one, but a good one.  She highlights the intellectual courage of Arendt quite well.  Some of the other actors, however, especially the American ones, are quite dreadful.  Harvey Friedman is cringe-worthy as Arendt’s chief antagonist, a sneering milquetoast college administrator who stepped straight out of a bad 80’s comedy.  Janet McTeer is simply annoying as Hannah’s snarky friend.  Much of the dialogue is clunky, like an early scene where a group of New Yorker staffers clumsily spills out Arendt’s credentials in a terrible bit of exposition.

To top it off, the film is competently put together but photographically, it’s exceptionally bland and forgettable.  The only hint of style is the incorporation of footage from the actual Eichmann trial, and even that is neither novel nor handled especially well.  Von Trotta is considered a key figure in New German Cinema.  Unfortunately, the only other thing I’ve seen by her is The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, a collaboration with husband Volker Schlöndorff.  That film also deals with a woman at the center of a situation involving complex morality.  It’s a more satisfying work (and one that in retrospect, I undervalued).  While this film is successful at stimulating interest in Arendt’s ideas, too much of it reeks of mediocrity and bloat.  Rating: Fair (61)

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2 Responses to “Hannah Arendt”

  1. Jimmy R said

    Small roles in a couple of Fassbinders? She played Lola in Fassbinder’s LOLA. She was the brilliant star of the film and, as I recall, was in nearly every scene.

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