Thursday, May 30, 2013

Film Review: "Hannah Arendt" at Film Forum

Hannah Arendt
Directed by Margarethe von Trotta; written by von Trotta & Pamela Katz
Zeitgeist Films
Opens May 29, 2013

Film Forum
209 West Houston Street, New York, NY

Sukowa in Hannah Arendt
Margarethe von Trotta and Barbara Sukowa make a formidable team dramatizing formidable women’s lives. The German director and actress have made biopics about Communist agitator Rosa Luxemburg (Rosa Luxemburg, 1986), 11th century abbess and polymath Hildegard of Bingen (Vision, 2009) and now, Hannah Arendt, about the Jewish-German theorist-philosopher whose description of Nazi Adolf Eichmann as a mere bureaucratic functionary epitomizing the “banality of evil” at his 1961 trial—which she wrote about for The New Yorker—outraged many (incorrectly) as defending the indefensible.

Von Trotta—who co-wrote the necessarily talky script with Pamela Katz—mostly succeeds at dramatizing writing and thinking; much of the film comprises dialogues between Hannah and her colleagues, friends, husband, assistant, New Yorker editors and antagonistic professors (often alternating tantalizingly between German and English) alongside interludes of Arendt chain-smoking, which blatantly symbolize her thought processes, crudely but effectively.

If some sequences come off as clumsy—notably meetings at the magazine that include cardboard caricatures of snooty assistant editors and flashbacks to a young Hannah’s affair with philosopher (and future Nazi) Martin Heidegger, shrilly played by Klaus Pohl—they give necessary context to the intellectual atmosphere of the eras Arendt’s philosophical theories came from, which Caroline Champetier’s muted color photography and Bettina Bohler’s cogent editing also contribute to.
Von Trotta is on surer ground in the sequences of Arendt attending the trial: although at first it seems that the director relies too much on archival footage from the actual Eichmann trial, it ultimately makes sense that the real man himself is put on display in all his “banality,” a far more powerful image than a mere actor made up to look like the war criminal would be.

Strong performances by Nicholas Woodeson as New Yorker editor William Shawn, Julia Jentsch as Arendt’s loyal assistant Lotte, Axel Milburg as her husband and fellow professor Henrich Blucher, and Janet McTeer as hard-nosed writer Mary McCarthy notwithstanding, Hannah Arendt is Sukowa’s show: her Hannah is a shrewd combination of intensity and warmth, never making this intellectual remote or, in today’s parlance, “elitist.” 

Sukowa and McTeer in Hannah Arendt
She hasn’t been scrubbed clean—her famed stubbornness is all there—and she is allowed to speak for herself: the spellbinding sequence near the end where she defends her work against those calling her a self-hating Jew for what she wrote about Eichmann is where a sympathetic director and actress team up (once again) to create an indelible portrait of a 20th century giant.

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