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HANNAH ARENDT (director/writer: Margarethe von Trotta; screenwriter: Pamela Katz; cinematographer: Caroline Champetier; editor: Bettina Böhler; music: André Mergenthaler; cast: Barbara Sukowa (Hannah Arendt), Axel Milberg (Heinrich Blücher), Klaus Pohl (Martin Heidegger), Janet McTeer (Mary McCarthy), Julia Jentsch (Lotte Köhler), Ulrich Noethen (Hans Jonas), Michael Degen (Kurt Blumenfeld), Megan Gay (Francis Wells), Nicholas Woodeson (William Shawn); Runtime: 113; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Bettina Brokemper/Johannes Rexin; Zeitgeist; 2012-Germany-in German, Hebrew and English, with English subtitles)
An intelligent film for open-minded thinkers.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

An intelligent film for open-minded thinkers about Hannah Arendt (1906-1976) as played by former Fassbinder star Barbara Sukowa. Hannah’s the controversial German-Jew who ended up after the Second World War living in NYC and working as a writer, a professor of philosophy, and a political theorist, who became reviled by a large portion of the Jewish community after she wrote an article for New Yorker about the 1961 trial in Jerusalem for Nazi Holocaust mass murderer Adolf Eichmann. Hannah was attacked by a large segment of the magazine readers, a few of her most intimate friends, and fellow Zionists for selling out the Jews, her own people, by blaming the victim instead of the actual killers for the genocide (she coldly claimed her facts lead her to conclude that the Nazi-appointed Jewish Councils reported to the Nazis and was the reason for so many Jewish deaths, seemingly clueless how that would be perceived in Israel and in the American Jewish community). She was also castigated for her portrayal of the monster Eichmann as merely a mediocre ‘desk man,’ an opportunist promoted to be in charge of the final solution program for the European Jews that resulted in six million deaths and not the incarnated Satan as perceived prior to the trial.

Margarethe von Trotta (“Vision”/”Rosa Luxemburg”/”Marianne and Juliane”), one of the prominent feminist filmmakers and a contemporary leader in the New German Cinema Movement, helms and co-writes with Pam Katz a brilliant essay biopic about the modern problem of classifying evil. The pic begins with the Mossad capturing Eichmann in Buenos Aires in 1960 and ends in 1963 shortly after Arendt’s book, based on her New Yorker articles, “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil,” is published.

The film mixes in actual footage of the Eichmann trial with a narrative that includes Hannah living the intellectual Upper West trip in NYC with her supportive Marxist professor second husband Heinrich Blücher (Axel Milberg); having regular chats about intimate things with best friend, The Group author, Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer); flashbacks to her student days in the Germany of the 1920s, when the married middle-aged renown philosopher Martin Heidegger (Klaus Pohl) was the teenager’s mentor and for a brief time her lover; a flashback to the 1950s when she meets Heidegger in the woods in Germany and tells him she never can forgive him for joining the Nazi party; it covers her internment in a French detention camp when Germany occupied France and the Vichy government cooperated with the Nazi camp policies; her escape from the camp and getting a visa to America, where she brought with her the rich Old World Jewish culture; the publishing in 1951, the year she was granted US citizenship, of her acclaimed political book The Origins of Totalitarianism; how in 1961 she contacted New Yorker editor William Shawn (Nicholas Woodeson) to cover the Eichmann trial and he gave her full support despite objections from other staff members; and the negative reactions she received from her oldest friend Hans Jonas (Ulrich Noethen), the only other Jewish philosophy student in Marburg University, when he read her article.

Arendt answered accusations that she has no love for the Jewish people, by cleverly replying “I have never in my life ‘loved’ any people or collective—neither the German people, nor the French, nor the American, not the working class or anything of that sort. I indeed love ‘only’ my friends.” In real life she told this to Jewish scholar Gershom Scholem, who was disappointed by what she said, but in the film the conversation takes place in Israel between the Jerusalem-based Zionist Blumenfeld (Michael Degen) and herself. Hannah is most noted for coining the term ‘banality of evil’ to explain how someone so far from greatness could carry out such an all-encompassing genocide by being so limited he was unable to think things out and then claiming he was only following orders, but also says he deserved to hang for being such a criminal tool.

The pic’s main problem is that it has too much story to fit into the film and by trying to get so much in its time-line execution it seems plodding at times. But rarely are films filled with so many ideas to absorb and rarely are intellectuals depicted so grandly as players on the world stage. My highest praise for the film, however, goes to Sukowa for her outstanding nuanced performance as she inhabits her complex character to the fullest to give the film a greatness that celebrates brain power as a real virtue in the face of conformity, madness and inferior intelligence.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”