Big Screen Berkeley: ‘Hannah Arendt’ is a superior biopic

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Hannah Arendt, focusing on the philosopher’s writing of her book “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” does the biopic well.

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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  • Marcia Poole

    Interesting review. I will go see it and also read her book “The Origins of Totalitarianism.”

  • Tizzielish

    Arendt’s legacy is so much more than her coverage of the Eichman trial and her evocation of ‘the banality of evil’. That phrase is great writing but it distracts people from her other work. She wrote about love, not just evil. One of my favorite books is a compilation of letters between her and her longtime lover and then husband, Heinrich Bucher, also a philosopher. Her mentor for a long time was Martin Heidegger and they were sometimes lovers, which affected her relationship with her husband, but their love overcame everything. And you can see their love in their letters — a beautiful book.

    As a tiny example of Arendt, I use a quote from her in my email signature:

    “. . . the great and incalculable grace of love, which says, with Augustine, “I want you to
    be,” without being able to give any particular reason for such supreme and insurpassable affirmation.” —- Hannah Arendt

    She wrote a lot of important, influential philosophical analysis of democracy. I’d much rather see a broader documentary about her than to see a focus on the Eichmann work but I’ll go see this movie,for sure. She was a brilliant and very influential philosopher. Her phrase ‘the banality of evil’ was actually kinda unfortunate — it distracts from her genius, imho.

  • JW

    She wrote a lovely book of letters between her longtime lover and then husband that is an affirmation of love, but she cheated on him with another man? “Their love overcame everything.” Whose love?