The Movie Waffler DVD Review - <i>Hannah Arendt</i> (2012) | The Movie Waffler

DVD Review - Hannah Arendt (2012)

Biopic of the controversial political theorist, new to DVD from Soda Films.

Directed by: Margarethe von Trotta
Starring: Barbara Sukowa, Axel Milberg, Janet McTeer

The Movie:

A film about German-Jewish Philosopher Hannah Arendt (Sukowa) and her controversial New Yorker articles on the trial of Nazi war Criminal Adolf Eichmann was always going to be difficult cinema. How do you depict a thinker and writer visually? In the case of Margarethe von Trotta’s conceptually sound but timid film it would be to have your lead smoking like a particularly stern chimney, the act of writing pretty much ignored, as if her most controversial piece appeared through simple alchemy.
By eschewing the linear approach of most biopics and concentrating on a small but vitally important part of Arendt’s life and career, Trotta can focus on the role of a Woman in Academia, the danger of complicity and the idea that it is normally the most boring and subservient who can be the most dangerous. It appears that for evil to flourish it doesn’t just need good people to do nothing but for bureaucrats to be wilfully myopic in action and to deny their horrendous gestalt.
One of the films greatest triumphs is the depiction of the trial. Rather than go for a simple recreation of events we have a mixture of staged courtroom and documentary. All the scenes of Eichmann are footage of the actual trial. It allows us to see Eichmann as the curious bird-like nervous presence he was, an unassuming, diligent civil servant who was responsible for the death of millions. The approach denudes him of any power, an acting performance may have overplayed him as bombastic caricature of Nazi Germany or a reptilian study in quiet evil. What we get is the clearest visual representation of Arendt’s “the banality of evil”, a milquetoast with a runny nose who would send you to your death as long as the correct forms were in order.
It seems strange that such an assertion would create such controversy on publication, it is a viewpoint that seems so commonplace now that one forgets it was one that only came about because of Arendt’s incisive brilliance in her investigations into totalitarianism. If putting a banal face to evil lit the touch paper then implying that high ranking members of the Jewish community were accountable for colluding with the Nazi’s blew up the whole munitions factory.
When the cloistered ranks of academia pour scorn on her and she becomes an outcast in certain sections of the Jewish community, the film reveals itself as a drama of feminism and female relationships. It is telling that in the film's version of events, most of the ire towards her theories come from male peers and the patriarchal Jewish community as a whole. One of her friends and fellow academics, Hans (Ulrich Noethen), it is insinuated, is motivated as much by sexual jealousy as anger by her published work (due to her affair as a student with philosopher and Nazi supporter Martin Heidegger (Klaus Pohl), an intriguing area of Arendt’s life that is only given lip service in flash back. Hannah’s support network is mainly female, be it her assistant and friend Lotte (Julia Jentsch) or her American author friend Mary McCarthy (McTeer) (also the sister of Invasion of the Body Snatchers actor Kevin McCarthy, trivia fans). 
McTeer and Jentsch give warm empathetic performances, grounding the story in the lived in shorthand of real friendships. This though is very much a one woman show, Sukowa is absolutely captivating in the lead. It is a performance of razor sharp excellence, the climatic rebuttal to the university a barnstorming work of controlled anger and intelligence. There is an irony that by condemning Hannah for seeing the human within the monster, her critics are wearing the same blinkers that allowed Eichmann to so blithely support the holocaust.
There is the sense that such a courageous and original thinker deserves better than this staid and prosaic telling of the story though. The scenes in America rarely convince and the depiction of the New Yorker magazine seem to have been filched from a forties screwball comedy. In the end it feels as though the work has been compromised in order to appeal to the widest number of viewers, like a History Channel docudrama.
Trotta has created a serviceable well mannered piece of cinema, informative and approachable but in no way radical. Considering the fierce originality of the subject matter this is perhaps the film's greatest sin.

A 30 minute making of which consists of interviews with the director and producers. It is all a bit standard issue press filler, but you do get some snippets about the possible direction the film could have gone in. There are also 5 minutes of deleted scenes which depict Hannah in a car accident and its aftermath. You also get a trailer.

Jason Abbey