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Margarethe von Trotta has made a fascinating film about what some might consider a remote subject -- a famous academic who made history with a controversial New Yorker series about the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann in Israel. Holocaust survivor Hannah Arendt's unemotional analysis of the unrepentant Nazi brought forward the chilling phrase, "The Banality of Evil". Her attempt to get at the root psychology of mass murder so offended Israelis and Jewish survivors that Arendt was shunned as a betrayer of her own people.
Ms. von Trotta chose as her star the great Barbara Sukowa, who famously played Lola for Rainer Werner Fassbinder. The true story is a clash of emotions, intransigent politics and Holocaust backlash.
In 1960 Hannah Arendt (Barbara Sukowa) is teaching in the United States. She's married to the poet and philosopher Heinrich Blücher (Axel Milberg), with whom she fled Nazi Germany almost thirty years before. They're considered a perfect couple by their German friends, most of which are academics. Among frequent visitors to the house is philosopher Hans Jonas (Ulrich Noethen), an enthusiastic booster of Israel. Hans was Hannah's closest friend back in school in the 1920s, when she became the lover of her professor, the famous Martin Heidegger (Klaus Pohl). Hannah and Hans had been shocked when their idol Heidegger threw his intellectual support behind Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. The capture of Adolf Eichmann in Argentina inspires Hannah to ask The New Yorker to hire her to cover the trial. Already famous for a book about totalitarianism, Arendt wants to get at the heart of the Nazi mentality. What she sees in Israel makes her critical of what is at least partly a 'show' trial, while Eichmann's complete lack of self-responsibility for the murder of millions profoundly disturbs her. Back in New York, the publishing of the articles ignites an uproar when aggressive pro-Israel pundits declare that she's defending the Nazi and criticizing the Jews. Worst of all, Arendt's articles make mention of actions by some Jewish leaders that aided the Nazi mass murderers. Hannah's oldest friends Hans Jonas and Kurt Blumenfeld (Michael Degan) condemn her outright. Hannah's close confidante famous author Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer) is one of her only defenders in academia. Another old colleague accosts Hanna on the road, accompanied by Israeli Mossad agents. He entreats her to halt publication of her articles in book form (Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil). Hannah asks them if Israel is now burning books.
The easiest way to start a fight these days is to get into a critical political discussion about the Middle East. Back in 1961, the horrors of WW2 were so close that critical analysis of the experience took a back seat to simple pragmatism -- the security of a nation and retribution against the guilty. Israel's trial was an act by a nation that believed in absolute self-reliance. Thousands of culpable ex- Nazis had been protected by the U.S. and even hired by them to continue hunting down Communists. Eichmann had fled to South America through an escape route organized by the Vatican. His kidnapping and transport to Israel was protested as a breach of international law.
Hannah Arendt is a fascinating portrait of the woman at the center of the controversy. Hannah is presented as a serious academic looking beyond the emotions of the moment. Much of the world seemed content to turn away from the unpleasant details of the Holocaust. Outraged critics accused Hannah Arendt of being a cold and calculating Nazi sympathizer, a traitor to her own heritage. The New Yorker editor William Shawn (Nicholas Woodeson) is clearly in awe of Hannah, while his assistant rightly predicts the storm of hate that will follow publication of the articles. The New York literati also condemn Hannah, seemingly out of opportunism to see a better writer brought low. Pressure is brought to bear everywhere, and Hannah suddenly finds that schools and colleagues that once were eager to be associated with her, are now questioning her right to teach. We wonder when she's going to be asked to drink hemlock.
Hannah loves her husband and enjoys a healthy romantic and social life. Until the big controvery hits, her biggest problems seem to be looking after Heinrich's health and quieting his arguments with the stubborn Hans Jonas at their popular house parties. As her older friends default to German in conversational talk, poor Mary McCarthy must wave her hand to be acknowledged. This intellectual group all but breaks up in the wake of Hannah's articles.
The screenplay by Pam Katz and director von Trotta succeeds where most films about writers fail: the writing process and a moral-philosophical argument are allowed to hold center stage. We hear bits of Arendt's words and many isolated opinions, but she does not speak her full mind until the end, through a short and powerful classroom speech defending her ideas. Nothing Hannah writes or says can assuage Jewish opinion. The emotional commitment to some basic causes is so strong that participants are beyond discussion or reason -- there are only allies and enemies. It's like a war -- when so many are in the trenches with their lives on the line, questioning the program is treasonous activity.
Ms. Sukowa is a fascinating actress. Her Hannah is a sober thinker but also an open-minded and inquisitive personality, with her own past to ponder -- that youthful affair with the brilliant, reckless celebrity philosopher. The German Jews in her circle were all severely affected by the Nazi years. Heinrich abandoned Communism in the 1920s and fled with Hannah first to Paris and then through special connections to the United States. Hans Jonas has made fighting for the Jewish cause into his life's biggest concern. These aging intellectuals feel victimized and also perhaps guilty for having survived. Kurt worries that young Israelis think that anybody who survived a concentration camp was a criminal or a whore. The solidarity required to remain strong will not tolerate memories that place any Jews in a questionable light. Arendt's critics don't want anybody to remind them of the heinous 'protection' of Jewish leaders like Chaim Rumkowski, who called upon the Lodz Ghetto to voluntarily give up its small children to be murdered.
Hannah Arendt has received a great deal of praise; I'm looking forward to seeing it again. I read one puzzling review that criticized Von Trotta's scenes of Arendt and her bosom friend Mary McCarthy talking about men and gossip, when the women were deeply involved in the literary dialogue of the time. We also see Hannah billing and cooing with the equally devoted love of her life. How else is the movie supposed to humanize its leading figure, to remind us that she's not a calculating logic machine? Ms. Von Trotta's film is free of lazy sentimentality and posturing; it's the exact opposite of prevaricating propaganda like The Iron Lady of a couple of years back. This is one film by a woman director that need make no excuses, of any kind.
Zeitgeist Films' Blu-ray of Hannah Arendt is an excellent HD encoding of a film shot on the Red Epic digital camera. Locations in Germany and Luxembourg stood in for Bard College and other U.S. settings, and scenes were filmed in Israel as well. A few judicious digital effects connect second unit work in New York City.
A making-of-featurette puts the EPK-style pabulum of most Hollywood work to shame -- the people interviewed have interesting, critical things to say about director Von Trotta and the job of recreating the fairly recent year 1961 -- it was difficult to find young film extras without tattoos, piercings and colored hair. A selection of deleted scenes involves Hannah's stay in a hospital after being injured in a taxi accident.
The insert booklet has a discussion of the film by Margarethe Von Trotta, and a brief biography of Hannah Arendt by Roger Berkowitz. The essays are followed by a helpful illustrated guide to the famous personalities portrayed in the picture, and a timeline of events in detail.
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Hannah Arendt Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.