A German-Jewish philosopher and professor famous for her writings on totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt found controversy and condemnation when she covered the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann for The New Yorker, a tale that Hannah Arendt treats with a respectability that periodically borders on inertia. Margarethe Von Trotta’s film (co-written with Pam Katz) has the stateliness of a Masterpiece Theatre production with performances to match, headlined by Barbara Sukowa as Arendt. Upon witnessing Eichmann testify in court, Arendt was profoundly struck by the fact that he was far from a monster of cartoonish satanic proportions. He was instead an ordinary bureaucrat who prized, above all other concerns, efficiently and loyally carrying out orders. That Arendt buys Eichmann’s portrait of himself as merely a cog in a larger machine (and one without any particular hatred of Jews) is appalling to her friends and colleagues, a social circle that included Arendt’s ill husband (Axel Milberg), her confidant and supporter (Janet McTeer), and a long-standing admirer (Ulrich Noethen). The story spends an inordinate amount of time suggesting she was as interested in extramarital relationships as she was in debating the topics of the day.
Arendt’s articles for The New Yorker are met with a virulent hostility that their author, due to what comes across as a mixture of naïveté and arrogance, does not expect. That hostility centers around her arguments that Eichmann was an example of “the banality of evil” and, more inflammatory still, that some Jewish leaders were themselves culpable in The Final Solution. Her reaction to the backlash that follows proves far richer dramatic material than the early-going, in which the most gripping moments are not Von Trotta’s staged sequences but, rather, archival clips of Eichmann’s testimony from behind bulletproof glass. Despite a nuanced lead turn by Sukowa, who exudes the requisite thoughtfulness and gravity of a woman who prized thinking as the greatest of all human virtues, Hannah Arendt sometimes seems, narratively speaking, to be on shaky footing. Between intermittent suggestions of covert hanky-panky perpetrated by peripheral players and Hannah’s flashbacks to an affair with her former professor, the film too often feels unfocused. Nonetheless, opting to leave somewhat open the question of whether its subject was a traitor to her Jewish people (as so many close acquaintances definitively concluded) or a conscientious scholar determined to conduct rational analysis free of public and peer pressure, it remains a mildly intriguing drama of the often unavoidable and contentious intersection of intellectual analysis and personal prejudices.