A portrait of the great thinker in troubled times, Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt is more than a woman.
Lights In The Dark by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
According to Martin Heidegger and his greatest student and one-time lover Hannah Arendt, thinking has no purpose – it’s simply the communication between me and myself. And yet, in Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt it’s the line of thought that unites Hannah Arendt with the convicted Nazi Adolf Eichmann. Already renowned and respected for her groundbreaking treatise on the evil of totalitarianism, the exiled Jew, who fled from a French internment camp during the war, caused a stir in the Sixties with her analysis of Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem. For New York’s own Iron Lady is rigorous and ruthless in her response to it, courting controversy as she tries to square the mediocrity of the man with the unfathomable evil of his actions. And so the unthinking officer, reduced in the dock to an order-serving bureaucrat, is pitted against the great thinker – first in his trial and then in her own defence against the breast-beating emotionalism of her detractors. Tempers are running high, but it’s thank to the courageous thinking of Hannah Arendt that we, as a civilisation, have really been able to plumb the depths of man’s capacity for evil.
Hannah Arendt (Barbara Sukowa) is living in New York, having escaped Nazi-occupied Europe and the Gurs interment camp in France. It’s 1960 and Nazi-in-hiding Adolf Eichmann has been captured by Israeli special forces outside Buenos Aires. It’s an opportunity that the German-born Jew, philosopher and author of The Origins Of Totalitarianism now teaching at the New School in Manhattan, can’t let slip. And so she writes to the editor of The New Yorker asking to cover Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem. Trying to reconcile the small, snivelling man in the dock, who sent millions to their deaths in extermination camps, with the evil of the Holocaust, Arendt composes an incendiary article exposing the complicity of Jewish leaders and the workmanly bureaucracy of the Nazi machine. But as the repercussions of her writing rampage around the world, Arendt retreats to an upstate hideaway, happily alone with her thoughts.
They were both German exiles in the Americas, and yet Hannah Arendt and Adolf Eichmann couldn’t be more different; the one a brilliant, distinguished (and Jewish) scholar, the other a hated war criminal. And yet it’s the unspoken dialogue between them that electrifies Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt, with archive footage of Eichmann in court behind his glass cage juxtaposed against her ringside life force – observing, engaging, thinking and writing. For Hannah Arendt is not afraid of an argument, as her Berlin-salon-style afternoon parties bear witness, battling alongside her beloved husband Heinrich for real justice, existential and moral truths. Her standpoint is unforgiving, and still shocking now, that Jewish leaders, somewhere between co-operation and resistance, may have facilitated the Nazis’ “final solution”. Almost stateless, distanced from constructs of people and nation, she lives on a very human scale, responding to every hate letter to repair the hole her words have rent and it’s a pure thought, free of ideology and isms and thoroughly at odds with Sixties America. But even while Arendt is depicted simultaneously as both arrogant and sarcastically vulnerable, von Trotta refuses to explain her heroine’s thinking.
Coining such phrases as ‘crimes against humanity’ and ‘the banality of evil’, Hannah Arendt is a leading voice in our understanding of evil and the Third Reich. And for all the furore following her publication, no-one managed to engage with the same rigorous thinking. The undeclared flaw in her thinking, she admits, is the irreconcilability of an evil that’s both radical and banal, and it’s a conundrum that would keep her occupied for the rest of her life. In the dock for her radical thinking, she cares only for her friends’ support. And yet the reactions of her friends are both heartwarming, as novelist Mary McCarthy comes rousingly to her defence (in yet another brilliant performance from Janet McTeer) and heartbreaking, as her Israeli ersatz-father Kurt turns away from her on his deathbed, no longer able to sustain their friendship over the battlefield of her words. It is, as both husband and wife suspect, a return to those ‘dark times’ of war and post-war. And yet from this personal voyage into the heart of darkness comes light – the thought processes that allow us to comprehend the incomprehensible.
Staging the intellectual response to the Holocaust and the Third Reich is perhaps doomed to failure; there’s no grand narrative or character arc to pin the film’s story on. And yet, Hannah Arendt is an enjoyably stimulating film, albeit, as is to be expected, in the Cliff Notes edition. The director of Rosenstrasse and The Lost Honour Of Katharina Blum pays little attention to the woman behind the brain – just her affectionate relationship with sometime philandering husband Heinrich and her once-upon-a-time affair with Heidegger. Even her banishment is withstood with stoic reveries, Arendt only once breaking down in tears. For this is Margarethe von Trotta’s portrait of Hannah Arendt, a steely thinker – much less a woman in a man’s world than a rebel with a cause.
Hannah Arendt is released on 27th September 2013 in the UK