Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt is not a documentary, but a dramatisation of the best-known episode in the life of the German-American political theorist. In 1961, while she was a professor at the New School in New York, Arendt went to Jerusalem to report, for the New Yorker, on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, following his abduction from Argentina by Mossad. Wary of the judicial process, suspicious of the Israeli government, Arendt refused to prejudge Eichmann. And perhaps she allowed herself to take her contrariety too far.
First, she seemed to go too far towards exculpation of Eichmann, in order to put across her big idea about the banality of evil. We have now all become used to this idea as part of the landscape of cruelty and suffering: in the modern world monstrous things are not usually done by monsters, but by ordinary people. But the dramatic crux of the film is Arendt’s even more controversial criticism of Jewish leaders under Nazi rule, which she took far enough to look like blame.
So she blamed her fellow Jews and exculpated the Nazi – er, maybe you’ve overthought that one a bit, Professor Arendt? Was this stubborn devotion to truth, or was she carried away with her own ideas?
There are some flashbacks to her youthful engagement (philosophical and physical) with Heidegger, the Nazi-in-waiting, and some other mildly awkward episodes in her personal life. Dialogue is spoken in the actual languages supposed to have been used by the people portrayed: mainly German, with interludes in English, while archive film is incorporated, surprisingly smoothly. This portrait of an intellectual woman is handled more calmly and seriously by von Trotta than one can imagine it would be by a British filmmaker. Glamourisation, conjecture, pathos, symbolism, and messages are eschewed.
Arendt is let off lightly, but I guess it’s tempting to side with her when the alternative might look like siding with the Israeli government and the people who tried to hound her out of her job. Not really an edifying episode in intellectual history, but an interesting story told with appropriate restraint.
Watch the trailer: