The banality of the biopic

Like the main character, the director’s take on the Eichmann trial is inconclusive.

Hannah Arendt  (photo credit: Courtesy)
Hannah Arendt
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Hannah Arendt Hebrew title: Hannah Arendt
Directed by Margarethe von Trotta.
Written by Von Trotta and Pam Katz With Barbara Sukowa, Janet McTeer, Axel Milberg
Running time: 113 minutes.
In German, English and Hebrew.
Check with theaters for subtitle information.
German-American political theorist Hannah Arendt once wrote, “There are many great authors of the past who have survived centuries of oblivion and neglect, but it is still an open question whether they will be able to survive an entertaining version of what they have to say.”
Arendt will survive the entertaining version of what she had to say in Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt , but it is, to borrow her own words, an open question what those who don’t know much about her will make of the film. Although the movie is quite flawed, I will confess to a bias toward any film that puts literature and ideas front and center. As movies in general have dumbed down shamelessly, a small group of directors have tried to focus on literature. If the results have been mixed, it is wonderful escapism for anyone who still cares about words (and not just clicking “like” on Facebook items).
As I watched Hannah Arendt , much of which concerns the furor surrounding her Eichmann in Jerusalem New Yorker article, I thought back to another film, Howl , about the obscenity trial against the publisher of Allen Ginsberg’s poem.
Those were the days when a poem or an article could arouse so much passion.
Von Trotta was undoubtedly drawn to Arendt’s story out of fascination with her work. Authors’ lives can be interesting, too, but it is almost never as interesting as their work, which is where so many movies about artists fail. In an attempt to make Arendt less remote and cerebral, Von Trotta goes to great pains to prove that Arendt was a real woman: a passionate lover, a great girlfriend, a devoted friend, a considerate employer, etc. But the parts of the movie concerned with proving how nice she was simply illustrate, to paraphrase another of Arendt’s famous sayings, the banality of the biopic.
That said, it’s not dull watching Arendt (Barbara Sukowa, in a performance that emphasizes Arendt’s soft, feminine side) in her book-lined Riverside Drive apartment, chatting with her secretary and her good friend, Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer); connecting passionately with her husband, Heinrich (Axel Milberg); arguing with their circle of friends and lovers; and teaching her students at the New School.
When Eichmann is arrested, Arendt clashes with her husband, saying it doesn’t matter if Eichmann was abducted illegally, it is fair that he be tried in Israel. She takes off for the trial (part of the film was actually shot in Jerusalem) and, as always, the real footage of the trial used in the film is compelling, upsetting and thought- provoking. It’s quite clear how Arendt arrives at her famous formulation of the “banality of evil,” inspired by the bureaucrat persona Eichmann chose to project at his trial. Arendt never seems to consider that Eichmann may be hiding something or trying to manipulate the judges. But then she comes to her far more divisive thesis: that the Jewish leaders hastened the death of their people by being overly cooperative with the Nazis. The rest of the film focuses on how angry people got over this conclusion and how Arendt dealt with their anger.
But what the film leaves out – and this is a crucial omission – is how Arendt arrived at this conclusion.
What was it in the survivors’ testimony that led her to this? What did they say there that she hadn’t heard before, or what about being at the trial made her see the old facts in a new light? Students of the period can guess, but it’s a great weakness of the film that it isn’t made clearer.
It’s as if Von Trotta herself recoiled from rehashing this controversy.
While I can sympathize with her wish to do this, the film suffers for it.
Students of intellectual history will want to see this film, which is not to say that they won’t get frustrated with much of it. A side plot about how Arendt, while a student in Germany, became the lover of her professor, Martin Heidegger, who later joined the Nazi party, seems rather pointless. That’s because we don’t really see what his ideological and personal betrayal meant to her.
But for those who are nostalgic for an intellectual way of life and a specific group of intellectuals who have all but vanished, it’s worth seeing Hannah Arendt .