Hannah and Her Admirers
If films were horses, almost no one would have placed even a $2 bet on Hannah Arendt, the recent biopic by the independent German filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta. How did a film that reprises the fifty-year-old controversy about what the German-Jewish refugee and political philosopher thought and wrote in 1963 about the kidnapping and trial of Adolf Eichmann become the most talked-about art-house movie of this past summer, and one of the most improbable independent-film successes in recent memory? There have been any number of movies about writers and artists, from Michelangelo to Truman Capote, made by directors of varying intellectual abilities in both Hollywood and Europe, but very few biopics made about intellectuals or philosophers. And with good reason: however wrongly, the lives of writers are thought to be sexy and exciting—think Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dinesen, Lillian Hellman. In contrast, the lives of intellectuals are thought to be deadly dull. It was said of Kant that one would be hard-pressed to infer the existence of the two sexes from his work. So imagine a biopic in which the philosopher is portrayed tramping around eighteenth-century Königsberg, giving his tutorials, writing The Critique of Pure Reason and, perhaps in order to spice up the plot, dashing off a stern letter to his erstwhile disciple Johann Gottlieb Fichte, warning him of the dangers of radical idealism. Its appeal would be, shall we say, somewhat circumscribed, no matter how buttery the popcorn.
But having made biographical films about the medieval mystic Hildegard of Bingen and Rosa Luxemburg—both of which starred Barbara Sukowa, who also plays the title role in Hannah Arendt—von Trotta is the only living director with a major body of work who could conceivably have mastered so austere and complicated a figure as Arendt. In terms of film history, only the imaginative re-creations of the lives of great European figures—Socrates, the Medicis, Descartes, Pascal and Louis XIV—that Roberto Rossellini made during the last two decades of his life, after he had abandoned the conventional cinema, provide any appropriate point of comparison with what von Trotta has attempted. But Rossellini’s films are tremendously detached, both cinematically and intellectually, eschewing close-ups and crosscutting, as well as all the other traditional storytelling methods that he had used so brilliantly in his great early neorealist films like Rome, Open City and Paisan, and later in the films with Ingrid Bergman such as Stromboli and Journey to Italy that he made in Europe in the 1950s. For Rossellini, they were teaching instruments, not films in the conventional sense.
Von Trotta’s ambitions—visually and narratively—have always been more traditional. Martin Heidegger, who was both Arendt’s teacher and lover during her student days at the University of Marburg in the mid-1920s, once remarked that there was nothing interesting to say about the life of a philosopher, only about the work. But von Trotta shows how foolish a claim that was. Her film has rightly been praised for portraying thinking on-screen in a manner that isn’t boring in the slightest. To be sure, von Trotta has her tricks: Arendt was a prodigious smoker, and her addiction is used throughout the film as something of a visual gimmick—wisps of cigarette smoke as eye candy, as it were. But first and foremost, von Trotta has Barbara Sukowa playing Arendt, and she is one of the great actresses of our time. There is also a superb supporting cast, most notably Axel Milberg, who plays Arendt’s second husband, Heinrich Blücher, with understated confidence. And Ulrich Noethen delivers a very strong performance as the philosopher Hans Jonas, whom von Trotta presents, somewhat inaccurately, as Arendt’s only serious intellectual antagonist.
Yet von Trotta and her screenwriting partner Pamela Katz fail miserably with the American characters, not a single one of whom is remotely credible. Janet McTeer is a wonderful actress, and as is obviously not the case with Sukowa’s Arendt, there are moments when McTeer does physically resemble Arendt’s great friend Mary McCarthy. But to anyone familiar even in passing with McCarthy’s work or aware of the cultural role she played in New York in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, the character as written is a travesty. Because von Trotta’s McCarthy is so busy reproaching Arendt for tolerating Blücher’s infidelities, or defending her after the Eichmann book appears, McTeer is denied the chance to convey any sense of McCarthy’s enormously cultivated sensibility and breadth of knowledge, both of which are brilliantly on display in Between Friends, the volume of the Arendt-McCarthy correspondence published in 1995.
But the missteps don’t end there. The depiction of the in-house discussions at The New Yorker between its editor, William Shawn, and members of his staff about whether they should publish Arendt’s report on the Eichmann trial is simply risible. Shawn, the most restrained of men, never resembled the hard-boiled editor that von Trotta and Katz seem to have taken straight from The Front Page or His Girl Friday. As for the snarling bureaucrats at the New School for Social Research, where Arendt taught—who demand her resignation and then furiously and ostentatiously walk out of the public lecture in which she defends Eichmann in Jerusalem—I fear that, to twist a famous remark of Dorothy Parker’s, those roles as written are a little too close for comfort to seeming like a road show for The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
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Von Trotta and Katz have said that when they were first developing the project, they considered making a film that encompassed Arendt’s entire life rather than focusing on the Eichmann affair, and they even produced an earlier version of the script for it. Little remains of that project save some scenes in the biopic, presented as flashbacks, from Arendt’s student days at Marburg. And these are a mistake. It is bad enough to have the young Arendt (played by Friederike Becht—who, unlike Sukowa, bears an astonishing resemblance to her), looking up adoringly at Heidegger from her seat in the lecture hall, but the scene where she waits for the great man tremulously at the doorway to her room as he bounds up the stairs like a rutting stag is cringe-inducing.
The Israeli characters fare no better. The Zionist leader Kurt Blumenfeld, who had been Arendt’s mentor in the German Zionist movement, is portrayed as a doddering sentimentalist straight out of Fiddler on the Roof. In reality, as his correspondence with Arendt amply demonstrates, Blumenfeld was a figure of considerable depth, tough-mindedness and cultivation, an ironist who could say that he had become a Zionist “by the grace of Goethe.”
The film ascribes to Blumenfeld the famous accusation actually leveled against Arendt by the great scholar of Kabbalistic Judaism, Gershom Scholem, who in an exchange of letters over Eichmann in Jerusalem disdainfully declared himself unable to take seriously her thesis about the banality of evil, while also reproving her for what he considered the arrogant, heartless tone of the book’s portrayal of the Judenräte, the Jewish councils, caught up in the Nazi machinery of extermination. What makes it to the screen, though, is only Scholem upbraiding her for her lack of love for the Jewish people. In her reply, Arendt conceded that Scholem was right, explaining that she loved no people, only her friends. The substitution of Blumenfeld for Scholem would be reasonable artistic license but for the fact that the exchange between Scholem and Arendt was a duel of equals: coldness for coldness, arrogance for arrogance. Yet von Trotta and Katz do not simply transfer Scholem’s words from his mouth to Blumenfeld’s. They have the Zionist utter them tearfully, from what is implied to be his deathbed—an old man unable to understand how “my Hannah” could have betrayed her own people in such a terrible fashion. One can all but hear the surge of metaphorical violins as Blumenfeld rolls over and turns his back to her.