Along with Jeanette McDonald-Nelson Eddy musicals and John Wayne westerns, biopics are, generally speaking, among my least favorite films. More often than not, they are boring recreations of historical (or, frequently, ahistorcial) events ripe for molehill-to-mountain criticism concerning the tiniest of factual errors. Biopics rarely entertain or enlighten, apparently existing only to generate buzz during awards season and annoy pedants.
Sometimes, however, the humble biopic puts the lie to my crude stereotyping and blunt-force pigeonholing. Consider Hannah Arendt (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, August 2): Despite a title promising another predictable trawl through the life and times of a Very Important Person, it actually manages to deliver more than another dose of birth, school, work, death.
My previous knowledge of Arendt consisted solely of a reading of her magisterial tome “The Origins of Totalitarianism.” Dense and weighty, “Origins” provides deep analysis of 20th-century history (her discussion regarding the relationship between imperialism and capitalism, found on page 126 of the Harcourt edition, is particularly noteworthy) but little in the way of obvious cinematic material.
Thankfully, this work from director Margarethe von Trotta (“The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum”) examines a different period of Arendt’s life. Primarily set during the early 1960s — two decades after her escape from occupied Europe, and one after the completion of “Origins” — the film focuses on the genesis, publication and resulting fallout of Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem” (a book I’ve never read, but probably should).
Adolf Eichmann, of course, was the Nazi apparatchik responsible for making sure the trains ran on time during the Holocaust. Having fled to Argentina after the collapse of the Third Reich, Eichmann was seized by Mossad agents and spirited away to Israel for a war crimes trial that ended with his conviction and execution in 1962.
The film follows Arendt (Barbara Sukowa, previously seen as revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg in an earlier von Trotta biopic) from her home in New York to Jerusalem and back again. Assigned to write a series of articles about the Eichmann trial for The New Yorker, Arendt struggled with the work, missed deadlines, and had to contend with a firestorm of post-publication criticism.
Having coined the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe the mousy, unprepossessing Eichmann, Arendt attempted to “reconcile his shocking mediocrity with his staggering deeds.” Her willingness to consider Eichmann’s actions as the routine behavior of an unimaginative man simply following orders and obeying the letter of the law earned Arendt the enmity of friends and colleagues uncomfortable with the idea that Nazis were anything but unholy monsters.
Written by von Trotta in collaboration with Pam Katz, Hannah Arendt is carried by Sukowa’s powerful performance. Janet McTeer supplies first-rate support as journalist friend Mary McCarthy (I’ll go out on a limb and predict a Supporting Actress Oscar nom for McTeer) and Axel Milberg as husband Heinrich Blücher (a controversial historical figure in his own right). Relative newcomer Julia Jentsch (Downfall, Sophie Scholl: The Final Days) is less well served in the thankless role of personal assistant Lotte Köhler, who does precious little beyond opening letters and announcing visitors. In real life, Köhler went on to serve as the executor of Arendt’s literary trust — but that, of course, is another biopic entirely.
Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more Big Screen Berkeley reviews here.
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