Great minds don’t always make great cinematic subjects. Not only do the time pressures of the form – which by convention must get from setup to conclusion in a reasonably brief period – somewhat preclude the kind of complexity inherent in any suitably developed philosophy or theory; but, equally importantly, the internality of thought is not a natural fit for a visual, narrative-driven medium. This is the conundrum at the heart of Margarethe von Trotta’s biopic of German-American political theorist Hannah Arendt (played by von Trotta regular Barbara Sukowa). While still in post-production, von Trotta summarised the issue in interview. ‘How does one use film to describe a woman who thinks?’ the co-writer and director asked. ‘That is of course the big challenge when making a film about intellectual personalities.’
From the finished film, it seems part of the solution was to narrow the focus; to resist the urge to survey a life in its totality and select with care only the most pertinent slice. ‘We considered starting with Arendt entering Heidegger’s seminar in Marburg [in 1924] and going up to her death [in 1975], but we realised it wouldn’t work,’ von Trotta explains, ‘because to make a film about a philosopher you have to deal with her capacity to think, not simply jump from one event in her life to another.’ So while the script includes flashbacks to key moments in the early development of Arendt’s political thought, the plot is otherwise restricted to just a few years in the early sixties, when her reportage of the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann – initially for The New Yorker and later collected and published as Eichmann in Jerusalem – ignited a fierce controversy on two fronts: first, in response to her accusations of complicity on the part of Jewish leaders; and second, surrounding the term ‘the banality of evil’ – a phrase inspired by her impression of Eichmann as emphatically ‘ordinary’ despite the immensity of his crimes, which has since acquired a kind of banality of its own through regular re-application to events from the Rwandan genocide to Abu Ghraib. The first charge drew angry denouncements labelling Arendt a self-hating Jew, while the latter was interpreted in some quarters as either a trivialisation of the suffering in which Eichmann was intricately involved, or an attempt to defend the un-defendable by diminishing his personal responsibility. Standing against such acrimony were those who saw in Arendt’s writing a then-radical prospect: that evil is not only the preserve of the diabolical, but the mediocre; that a failure to think could facilitate unthinkable deeds. ‘Nearly every major literary and philosophical figure in New York chose sides’ writes Roger Berkowitz in a recent opinion piece for The New York Times, going on to reference Irving Howe’s 1982 caution that ‘such controversies are never settled. They die down, simmer, and erupt again.’
Indeed, the debate’s sediment has recently been stirred – not only by Hannah Arendt, but by another film to premiere in recent months. Based on interviews made around the time of his landmark documentary Shoah (1985), The Last of the Unjust is, according to reports from Cannes, director Claude Lanzmann’s repudiation of accusations of Jewish collaboration. It consists of lengthy discussions with former Jewish Council President Ben Murmelstein, who presided over the day-to-day workings of Theresienstadt concentration camp and reported directly to Eichmann. To Lanzmann’s mind, Murmelstein was anything but a weak or deplorable participant in the annihilation of his own people, but rather someone ‘crushed by a hellish system… the victim of savage contradictions’; Eichmann, meanwhile, ‘was no mere bureaucrat!’ Though the interview transcripts have been available for many years, the documentary’s near-contemporaneous arrival with Hannah Arendt has, for some, made the latter look insufficiently critical of its subject’s less successful arguments.
There is perhaps a ring of truth to charges of hagiography. Throughout the film, any sympathetic supporting characters (including novelist/confidante Mary McCarthy and poet/husband Heinrich Blücher) are afforded sensitive portrayals, but outspoken critics like Norman Podheretz (who famously penned a riposte subtitled ‘A study in the perversity of brilliance’) are reduced to broad caricatures, even robbed of a surname in the credits. This not only confirms on which side of the fence von Trotta stands; it arguably manhandles the audience into sharing it, rather than allowing them the space and balance to draw their own conclusions.
The exception is its representation of fellow philosopher Hans Jonas (Ulrich Noethen) – a close friend of Arendt shown to bitterly reject her arguments. He is the film’s most developed voice of opposition, and though his screen time is slight, the placement of his scenes emphasises their impact. For instance, while focussing on this single episode in Arendt’s life sees the film venture close to one of the biopic genre’s most overused clichés (namely a narrative arc in which a forward-thinking subject produces their seminal work in the face of opposition), the semi-victorious finale in which Arendt passionately defends her work before students and peers is emotionally undercut by the scene immediately after, in which Jonas expresses his continued hurt and anger. Jonas, not Arendt has the final word, revealing a greater dialecticism than the film’s most emphatic detractors have recognised. Indeed, the fact that this climax effectively consists of a lecture-hall question-and-answer session evidences von Trotta’s express efforts to not only depict concrete actions, but to expound as much as possible on abstract ideas; ‘to describe a woman who thinks’ by presenting not only the woman, but the thoughts.
Christopher BuckleFreelance researcher and journalist
 Thilo Wydra (2012), ‘Margarethe von Trotta on Hannah Arendt: ‘Turning thoughts into images’’, Goethe Institut, accessed 23/09/13 at http://www.goethe.de/kue/flm/far/en8898031.htm
 Graham Fuller (2013), ‘Q&A: Margarethe von Trotta on Filming Hannah Arendt’s Public Ordeal’, Blouin Artinfo, accessed 23/09/13 at http://www.blouinartinfo.com/news/story/909147/qa-margarethe-von-trotta-on-filming-hannah-arendts-public
 Roger Berkowitz (2013), ‘Misreading ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’’ The New York Times, accessed 23/09/13 at http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/07/07/misreading-hannah-arendts-eichmann-in-jerusalem/?_r=0
 Irving Howe (1982), A Margin of Hope, extract accessed 23/09/13 at http://www.dissentmagazine.org/online_articles/banality-and-brilliance-irving-howe-on-hannah-arendt
 Agnes Poirier (2013) ‘Claude Lanzmann returns to the Holocaust’, The Guardian, accessed 23/09/13 at http://www.theguardian.com/film/2013/may/14/claude-lanzmann-last-unjust
 Joan Dupont (2013) ‘Claude Lanzmann’s Postscript to ‘Shoah’’, The New York Times, accessed 24/09/13 at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/18/arts/18iht-dupont18.html
Out now on selected release