There’s been no shortage of dramas made about Nazis down the years but not too many about twentieth century political theorists, and certainly none as handsomely put together as Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt. Arendt was a Jewish student of Martin Heidegger who managed to flee to America with her husband when World War Two broke out, albeit via a spell in a French detention camp. She thereafter taught in a number of universities and published some highly regarded books that probed the nature of evil (it was Arendt in fact who coined the phrase “the banality of evil”). When the Israeli security forces captured Adolf Eichmann, one of the initiators of the holocaust and minute-taker at the infamous Wannsee conference, Arendt felt compelled to cover the subsequent trial in Jerusalem and offered her services as reporter to The New Yorker, who were delighted to accept. The article she filed however, met with widespread condemnation, as Arendt’s subtle but rigorously researched and reasoned arguments that Eichmann was not much more than an incurious civil servant and that the Nazis had debased morality to such an extent that some Jewish leaders had become in some ways compliant with the planned extermination of their people went over many readers’ heads.
Von Trotta’s film depicts both the trial and the following controversy over Arendt’s account of it with intelligence and sensitivity and succeeds in making a thought-provoking and involving drama out of some potentially quite difficult material. There are thankfully no grainy sequences of ghettoes being liquidated or over-packed trains pulling out of stations (though there are one or two possibly unnecessary flashbacks to encounters between the young Arendt and the Nazi-sympathising Heidegger), but there is some grimly fascinating footage from the actual Eichmann trial integrated into the reconstruction in which you get to see the man himself attempting a defence for his actions. It may be down to judicious editing but his pedantic insistence on clarifying points of procedure and lack of interest in anything falling outside his immediate brief (like, you know, what’s going to happen to the people at the end of those train rides he’s been organising) does underline Arendt’s impression of him as an unremarkable middle manager.
Mostly though the film remains in a lushly photographed, Mad Men era, New York – apartments, drinks parties, slicked back men and twin-setted women, and lots and lots of smoking. Barbara Sukowa gets the plum role of Arendt and does it brilliantly, switching fluently between German and English, expressing complex nuances of philosophy forcefully but never stridently, fearlessly taking on her critics but also projecting vulnerability and a very touching tenderness towards her husband Heinrich (played by Axel Milberg). It’s quite a talky film, and to be honest at times some of the dialogue felt a bit over-expository to me, as if the scriptwriters were nervous about the knotty subject matter and thought that the audience might need a few pointers to guide them through, but the climactic setpiece is worth it: the lecture Arendt gives to justify her article and make clear that she has not betrayed her ancestry or sympathies. It’s a really powerfully written scene, delivered with nerve by Sukowa. I was slightly worried that this film might be a bit of a dry history lesson but it’s as watchable as a good thriller and I learned some important things anyway.