Director: Margarethe von Trotta
Screenplay: Margarethe von Trotta, Pam Katz
Producers: Bettina Brokemper
Starring: Barbara Sukowa, Janet McTeer, Klaus Pohl
Country: Germany, Luxembourg, France
BBFC Certification: 12
Duration: 113 minutes
The biopic can be the most predictable of all film genres. Certainly the glut of films, popular in the 00s, about legendary music artists followed a very similar pattern, which admittedly had a certain comforting appeal to it. But focusing as they invariably do on historical figures of great importance to their relative fields, biopics can also have an air of pomposity or a moist-eyed sentimentality that translates as vicarious self-congratulatory indulgence. The enjoyment of biopics often directly relates to the viewer’s level of interest in the subject. A good biopic should be able to draw you into the story no matter how little you may already know but too often they consist of big winks to the audience who are assumed, due to their very presence at the screening, to have more than a passing knowledge of what is going to happen.
It was an unusual experience for me, then, when I sat down to watch Hannah Arendt, having no prior knowledge of her work or even the existence of the titular subject. Fortunately, Margarethe von Trotta’s engrossing biopic of the German philosopher (or ‘political theorist’ as she preferred to be known), did not assume a great deal of knowledge on the part of the viewer and instead took great pleasure in relating Arendt’s story in a way that most viewers would find accessible. Focusing on Arendt’s coverage of the 1961 trial of Adolph Eichmann, Hannah Arendt assumes a certain level of intelligence in its viewer, the like of which you’d expect of anyone seeking out a film about a great thinker and her controversial reaction to the crimes of an ex-Nazi. Given the circles she moved in and the nature of her work, Hannah Arendt was always going to be a dialogue-heavy film mainly set in drawing rooms, press offices and lecture theatres but it is far from a dull or slow-moving piece. In its examination of Arendt’s famous theories on ‘the banality of evil’ (the one thing in the film I had previously heard of), Hannah Arendt encourages us to do plenty of thinking of our own, keeping the brain active and riveted throughout.
In the central role of Arendt, Barbara Sukowa is excellent. Unlike, say, Joaquin Phoenix tasked with impersonating Johnny Cash, Sukowa is presented with the challenge of portraying a woman who most people will know only through her writing. One thing both von Trotta’s script and Sukowa’s performance emphatically avoid is portraying Arendt as a harsh, stereotypically Germanic figure which the subject matter and (if you’ll allow me a shameful admission of latent xenophobia) even the pointed named ‘Arendt’ seem to suggest. While the script focuses largely on the coverage of the Eichmann trial and the subsequent controversy, the director and star are careful to flesh out the central character as more than just a committed thinker. She is also an adoring wife, as her loving and playful relationship with husband Heinrich, wittily played by Alex Milberg, beautifully demonstrates. And, for a writer at whom allegations of professional coldness were often levelled, she is not only depicted as warm and loving in her personal life but also deeply sensitive to the subject matter she is writing on, as a German Jew and former detainee of the Vichy regime who managed to escape with her husband to America.
Hannah Arendt uses both German and English dialogue as appropriate and this highlights one of the film’s problems. While Sukowa gives a wonderful performance in both languages, the bold depiction of the American characters often borders on the cartoonish. They are largely depicted as brash, sarcastic, wide-eyed or crass and during the moments when only American characters are on screen Hannah Arendt sometimes feels at risk of turning into The Hudsucker Proxy. The standout American performance is by Janet McTeer as author Mary McCarthy, and even she is portrayed as a little too forthright for her own good. The film can also hardly be called impartial, often showing critics of Arendt’s writings to be boorish and hasty. There are exceptions, however, as Arendt begins losing good friends because of her dedication to her theories. These characters are more carefully established early on in the narrative and this is crucial in illustrating Arendt’s commitment in the face of both critical and personal attacks.
For all its differences from the Hollywood biopic’s formula, Hannah Arendt still utilises one of its major characteristics: the climactic speech. It’s a familiar and, if done well, enthralling mainstay of cinema and in Hannah Arendt it is deployed with just the right amount of force. Fans of climactic speech scenes will smile in recognition at the ever-present begrudging authority figures with folded arms and stern expressions. However, as must always be the case with such a subjective and wide-reaching field as philosophy, Arendt’s closing address is not the final word. She does not win over her fierce detractors and, while she is showered with applause by her supporters, moments later she watches an old friend turn his back on her for good. The film’s final shot of Arendt thoughtfully smoking one of her ever-present cigarettes, coupled with a caption that informs us that she ‘struggled’ with the theme of evil until her death, is a suitably open-ended climax to a small film that analyses big issues but without bombastic conclusions.
Hannah Arendt is released on DVD on 27 January 2014 by Soda Pictures