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One of the hardest tasks in filmmaking is to make ideas sexy, or at least passably interesting, onscreen, The Master being but one recent tussle with the problem. Hannah Arendt is a remarkably successful attempt from heavy-weight German director Margarethe Von Trotta, who has filmed the biopics of Rosa Luxemburg and Hildegard von Bingen with serious passion. Hannah Arendt, the German-born philosopher who coined the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe the ordinariness of the Holocaust’s perpetrators, seems like an impossible subject for film, yet even viewers who have never read a word of her books will be stirred by her intellectual and emotional courage in Barbara Sokuwa’s award-worthy performance.
With Martin Heidegger and Adolf Eichmann playing key roles, this this isn’t going to be everybody’s beerfest. Von Trotta seems to borrow some of her subject’s haughty disdain for compromise in a serviceable script that does the job of telling us who Hannah Arendt was like a good pair of solid, gray walking shoes; there’s nothing fancy or modern to distract from the portrait of one of the most important thinkers of the century. Only the New York setting in the 1950s and the familiar name of novelist Mary McCarthy (an amusing, very likeable Janet McTeer), Hannah’s close friend and defender, help ease the viewer into the German dialogue and the grim subject on Hannah’s mind.
She and her beloved husband Heinrich (Axel Milberg) are German Jews who have lived in New York since they escaped from a French detention camp during the war. For Arendt, America is “paradise.” Her students at The New School are in awe of their brilliant, cigarette-smoking teacher with the heavy accent. Then an incredible opportunity arises for her to cover the trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann (captured by the Mossad in the film’s opening scene) who oversaw the logistics and transportation of Jews to the concentration camps. Her bid to cover the story for The New Yorker is accepted, and she flies to Jerusalem to follow the trial and meet old friends like the kindly Kurt Blumenfeld (Michael Degan.)
Back home, with the help of her savvy young assistant Lotte (Julia Jentsch), she plows through trial records and write her impressions, which The New Yorker publishes in five articles, to be followed by a book. While Sukowa’s magnetic, multi-faceted personality has held interest up to this point, now it’s time for real drama. The idea that ordinary, normal people and not special “monsters” are responsible for heinous crimes against humanity is a novel idea that doesn’t sit well with many people. But above all, Arendt is attacked for writing that the trial showed some Jewish leaders were involved as collaborators with the Germans and responsible, for various reasons, in sending their own people to the camps. Although this is only a small part of her long analysis, it blows up into a media circus. The hate mail she and The New Yorker receive frightens even the people who most support her.
Though she loses many of the friends she held most dear, Arendt refuses to back down, not out of stubbornness, but because she believes in what she has said and written. Her closing remarks to her students – she has refused the board of directors’ request she resign – qualifies as one of the great classroom scenes in cinema and a thrilling lesson in courage.
Venue: Toronto Film Festival, Sept. 8, 2012.
Production companies: Heimatfilm in association with Amour Fou Luxembourg, Mact productions, Sophie Dulac Productions, Metro Communications
Cast: Barbara Sukowa, Axel Milberg, Janet McTeer, Julia Jentsch, Ulrich Noethen, Michael Degen
Director: Margarethe Von Trotta
Screenwriters: Pam Katz, Margarethe Von Trotta
Producers: Bettina Brokemper, Johannes Rexin
Director of photography: Caroline Champetier
Production designer: Volker Schaeffer
Costumes: Frauke Firl
Editor: Bettina Bohler
Music: André Mergenthaler
Sales Agent: Match Factory
No rating, 114 minutes.
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