Margarethe von Trotta, widely regarded as one of Germany’s most talented and accomplished film directors, was irresistibly drawn to Hannah Arendt, the renowned German-Jewish philosopher and political theorist.
“She is a very important thinker,” von Trotta said. “Some of her books have a lot to do with Germany’s past. So I was interested.”
So much so that her latest movie, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last month, is a biopic on Arendt, who was born in 1906 and died in 1975.
Hannah Arendt, as von Trotta’s thoughtful, brooding film is plainly titled, focuses on the period from 1961 to 1964, a tumultuous period in her life.
Arendt left Nazi Germany after being interrogated by the Gestapo. She fled to France, only to be imprisoned for several weeks in the Gurs detention camp. In 1940, she and her second husband, Heinrich Blucher, a German poet and Marxist philosopher, immigrated to the United States, where she taught at a succession of universities.
In 1960, a team of Mossad agents kidnapped German war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Buenos Aires and brought him back to Israel to face justice. Fired up by Eichmann’s capture, Arendt asked the editor of The New Yorker, William Shawn, whether she could cover the trial. He agreed, thrilled that a writer of her calibre and status would represent the magazine in Jerusalem.
Shawn had read one of her major works, The Origins of Totalitarianism, which traces the roots of communism and fascism against the backdrop of antisemitism and imperialism, and had been impressed by the depth of Arendt’s knowledge and analytical powers.
Arendt’s article in The New Yorker evolved into a book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, published in 1963 amid a firestorm of controversy.
With the Holocaust in mind, Arendt wrote that evil acts are not necessarily committed by fanatics or sociopaths, but by ordinary and thoughtless people like Eichmann. Arendt also claimed that, without the co-operation of Nazi-appointed Jewish councils in ghettos, the Jewish death toll would likely have been lower. This claim, in particular, elicited a torrent of dissent from New Yorker readers and her old friends, who accused Arendt of coldness and a lack of empathy for the victims of the Holocaust.
Von Trotta, 70, who was born in wartime Berlin and co-wrote the script of Hannah Arendt with associate Pam Katz, was captivated by this episode in her career.
“Originally, I thought of covering her whole life,” said von Trotta in an interview during the festival. “But we couldn’t possibly fit it all into one film. I thought it would be better to concentrate on a small but important moment. It became clear that focusing on the four years where she reported on and wrote about Eichmann was the best way to portray both the woman and her work and to gain a deeper understanding of dark times in 20th-century Europe.”
In the movie, which in part was funded by the Israel Film Fund and may well open in North American theatres in 2013, Arendt, played by the German actress Barbara Sukowa, almost dreads the prospect of dredging up the Nazi past by attending the Eichmann trial. Her loving husband, too, is wary, saying it may well bring back terrible memories.
As she intently listens to Eichmann’s testimony, which is resurrected in black-and-white file footage that seamlessly blends into the fabric of von Trotta’s film, Arendt reaches two conclusions: Eichmann is a “nobody” in terms of character and intelligence, and is career driven rather than personally antisemitic. As these scenes unfold, there are flashbacks to Arendt’s passionate love affair with Martin Heidegger, her professor at the University of Marburg, where she studied philosophy.
Heidegger joined the Nazi party in 1933, the year Adolf Hitler assumed power, and while she was highly critical of his decision, she renewed her friendship with him after the war and never stopped believing he was one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century.
The film portrays Arendt as a person who was both vulnerable and arrogant.
She dismissed vehement criticism of her New Yorker piece as a tempest in a teapot, disingenuously claiming it was merely an article in a magazine. Later, with considerable disdain, she described the reaction to her article as “hysterical.”
When one of her friends said she had suppressed her pain and was too detached from the Holocaust, she declared, “I refuse to explain myself to these dimwits!”
As for her response to critics who berated her attitude toward Jewish Councils under the Nazi occupation, Arendt denied having blamed Jews for their destruction, asserted she was not a self-hating Jew and plaintively wondered, “Is there something between resistance and co-operation?”
Von Trotta, a former actor who has always been interested in portraying strong women on the screen, said Arendt was devastated by the sharp criticism directed against her.
“She didn’t realize they would be so severe. But the attacks on her could be thoughtless.” Many of the critics, she noted, had not even bothered reading Eichmann in Jerusalem.
Asked whether she agrees with Arendt’s harsh characterization of the Jewish Councils, she replied, “I don’t know. I’m not a historian, but I couldn’t ignore this topic.”
Von Trotta, who in 1986 directed Rosa Luxemburg, a film that revolves around a 20th-century Jewish revolutionary murdered by German fascists in the wake of World War I, cast Sukowa as Arendt because she envisaged her in that role right from the outset. “I would not have made this film without Barbara,” she said.
Sukowa, her longtime collaborator who won the best actress award at the Cannes Film Festival by playing Luxemburg, acknowledged that portraying Arendt was a challenging proposition.
“It was difficult getting in her head,” she observed as she sat next to von Trotta. “I studied her carefully, how she moved, how she spoke. I don’t look like her, but we focused on ideas rather than physical resemblances.”
Sukowa, a star in the movies of the legendary German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, said that Arendt’s story is symptomatic of how an evil ideology, personified by the Nazis, can disfigure an otherwise civilized society.
Von Trotta, who in 2003 directed Rosenstrasse, a film about German Christian women who in 1943 mount a demonstration in Berlin to protest the planned deportations of their Jewish husbands, concurs with Sukowa’s appraisal.
“There was,” she said, “a total moral collapse in Nazi Germany.”