A strident and awkwardly amusing biopic of the German-Jewish historian and philosopher.
Director Margarethe von Trotta wants to show you the life of the mind. Hannah Arendt’s, to be precise. In 1961, the German-Jewish historian and philosopher prompted cascades of hate mail. The cause? A series of articles for The New Yorker, in which she was said to portray one of the architects of The Final Solution in a sympathetic light. The film locates her before, during and after her incendiary penmanship, zeroing in on the fusty day-to-day settings of an unmaterialistic intellectual.
‘The banality of evil’ is a phrase with its origins in Arendt’s reportage of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the high-ranking Nazi in question who fled before Nuremberg, delaying justice until many years later in an Israeli courtroom. Parts of his trial make its way into this story, the stark black-and-white proceedings nestling awkwardly within a colour film with the wholesome tone of a girl’s own adventure yarn.
This tone works in opposition to a wonderful, quicksilver performance by one of Fassbinder’s leading ladies, Barbara Sukowa. The affection she gives husband Heinrich is giggly and teenager-like while the steel she shows dealing with editor of The New Yorker, William Shawn, could make a jobbing hack give a standing ovation.
Hannah Arendt is best when worked up into fits of intellectual sparring that are so sublimely over-the-top, it’s clear von Trotta is having fun. Flashbacks to Hannah’s formative years as a student and lover of the subsequently disgraced philosopher Martin Heidegger show the blushing looks and slow close-ups that form their attraction. But instead of clichéd lines, the words that get Hannah in a tizzy are brain teasers.
It’s an original inversion of romantic norms yet not enough to counter Hannah Arendt’s critical problem. It meanders from screwball comedy to strident biopic to historical drama with no central thesis worthy of its philosophical subject.
Arrives with an air of stilted respectability.
Has its moments but never finds its feet.
A trivial take on a profound thinker.