4 stars
Way back in the 1980s, Sydney audiences were offered a wide choice of foreign language movies with the rise of independent art-house cinemas like the Dendy, the Mandolin and the Valhalla. In the new millennium things do not exist as before and fewer foreign films gain a theatrical release here. Audiences have to scan the programs of a plethora of country-specific festivals and rush to catch the one or two screenings each title has. So, when a film by the veteran German director Margarethe von Trotta turns up, many years after the last two of her earlier titles to do reasonably well here, Rosa Luxembourg (1986) and Sisters: The Balance Of Happiness (1979), it is cause for celebration. Why? Because this is as good as German cinema gets and it features one of Germany’s finest actresses, Barbara Sukowa, who has worked with many of the great directors of her country, people like Volker Schlöndorff, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and, of course, von Trotta.

Hannah Arendt (Barbara Sukowa – Lola / Berlin Alexanderplatz) was a philosopher and political theorist, considered to be one of the 20th century’s greatest thinkers. In von Trotta’s eponymous film, the director and her co-writer, Pam Katz, concentrate on Arendt’s philosophical theory of ‘the banality of evil’. Arendt wrote her articles on this theory for The New Yorker while covering the 1961 trial in Jerusalem of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, who had been captured in Argentina by the Israeli security forces and repatriated to Israel.

Having escaped from a French detention camp during the war, the German-Jewish Arendt made her way to New York with her husband Heinrich Blucher (Axel Milberg – The Fifth Estate), a German poet and philosopher. Her controversial theory espoused that ordinary man was capable of carrying out orders without bearing responsibility for the consequences and, in Eichmann’s case, that he was just another bureaucrat out to further his career. No-one had written about the Holocaust in these terms before and her words caused a scandal, leading to attacks from both her supporters and her enemies. But Arendt was as fierce and arrogant as she was intelligent and she refused to back down, a stance that the years have justified. Her subsequent book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, is recognised as one of her most important works and, although it remains controversial, is regarded as a seminal work on the crimes of the Nazis.

The film concentrates on the period from 1961 to 1964 and follows Arendt at her home in New York, where she and her husband entertain an intelligent and lively salon that includes controversial author Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer – The Woman In Black), and as she travels back to Israel to cover Eichmann’s trial. Sukowa convincingly reveals these contrasts as Arendt not only deals with issues from her German past, but also from her current, comfortable American life. Her articles caused much angst and dissent in certain quarters of the Jewish establishment, particularly amongst those who had survived the horrors of incarceration and were now living in other parts of the world. The fact that she also raised the question as to why some Jewish leaders collaborated with the Germans during the war also contributed to her unpopularity and made her the recipient of much hate mail.

This is a complex film, but it is not necessary to have read, or even heard about Arendt, to appreciate it and to learn from this woman’s enormous courage and strength of will when faced with adversity. Although cerebral, it should not be overlooked, firstly for Sukowa’s mesmerizing performance and, secondly, for the fact that Arendt was prepared to question the moralities of racism and war. At the time she was very much a lone warrior, but according to von Trotta, “the light that [her] work brought into the world still shines.”


Previewed at Studio 12, Hoyts Entertainment Quarter, Sydney, on 13 December 2013

3.5 stars

The thinking person's thinking person is given biopic treatment in this brain-stretching exploration of one woman whose ideas 'changed the world'. Hannah Arendt left Germany as a child and became one of her generation's most influential philosophers and political theorists. On a whim, she offered to cover the war crimes trial of noted Nazi Adolf Eichmann for the New Yorker. Unsurprisingly, her expansive argument that he was but a cog in the wheel of hatred and therefore not entirely accountable for his actions (Eichmann stood accused of facilitating the death of millions of Jews) met stiff resistance.

German filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta, a former actress for Rainer Werner Fassbinder, is more recently known for another holocaust story, Rosenstrasse. She's also known for an uneven hand, one that accounted for that film's sudden lurches in mood and style. Fortunately, she's on much more even ground here as Hannah Arendt charts the trial of the century and Arendt's unpopular, possibly dangerous, views. Her conclusion that Eichmann was not an anti-semite, but merely an efficient bureaucrat following orders with the unintentional cooperation of the Jewish leadership, gave rise to a condition she called 'the banality of evil'.

Barbara Sukowa (Fassbinder's Lola) is a stand out as Arendt whom she invests with an incredible vitality; her closing soliloquy is tremendous. Janet McTeer as Hannah's close American friend is given to wild mugging and grand gestures when the Germans get too argumentative, too philosophical. It's not unreasonable, these characters are prone to losing we less enlightened viewers, but the shifting tone and clunky dialogue highlights how fascinated the director becomes with some aspects of her film to the detriment of others.

Yet despite the production's short-comings and von Trotta's fondness for the trowel, Hannah Arendt is a film that rises far beyond its short comings. With crisp lensing and bold production (lengthy inclusions of actuality from the trial are fascinating), this becomes a memorable account of how one dangerous idea can change the world.


Previewed at Studio 12, Hoyts Entertainment Quarter, Sydney, on 24 January 2014

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Barbara Sukowa
Axel Milberg
Janet McTeer
Ulrich Noethen
Michael Degen

Margarethe von Trotta

Margarethe von Trotta
Pam Katz

Germany, Israel, France
Luxembourg (with subtitles)


113 minutes

March 13, 2014
Hannah Arendt (2012) on IMDb
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