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.