«There is nothing more revolutionary than a female thinker”, says the artistic director of the TIFF Cameron Bailey, and the entire room groans. This unfortunate opening line and the unforgiving reaction of the audience could easily be taken as a bottom line for the first Canadian screening of Hannah Arendt, the latest work of the celebrated German director Margarethe von Trotta, many times a TIFF guest.
The room is packed with a loud audience. Shouts and sardonic comments accompany the advertising projections, but as soon as the movie starts, the theatre goes silent (with some occasional bursts of laughter at a couple of punchy lines). Director Margarethe Von Trotta and her crew (including starring actress Barbara Sukowa, and co-screenwriter Pam Kats) are warmly welcomed, both before and after the screening.
The film does not cover the entire span of Hannah Arendt’s biography, but it rather focuses on her legendary report from the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem and on the hysterical reactions it sparked. Earlier episodes of her life are indirectly related through the dialogue or through cinematic flashbacks. There is no space for some important figures of her life, such as her first husband Gunther Anders. Consistently with the director’s strive for historical accuracy, the movie focuses on the relationship between Hannah and her second husband Heinrich Bluher (played by Axel Milberg) and her broken friendship with Kurt Blumenfeld (played by Michael Degan), the friend of 30 years who had acquainted Arendt with Zionism as early as in 1933. Understandably enough, of all her previous life, the screenwriters have picked her controversial relation with Martin Heidegger, her shock at her teacher’s adhesion to Nazism (up until their late reconciliation), and her lucky escape from the concentration camp in Gurs, France. Her monumental The Origins of Totalitarianism is also mentioned in an early scene of the film, as the intellectual milestone in the philosophical debate Arendt was later to contribute to with her Eichmann in Jerusalem. A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963).
While the movie offers some glimpses of the effervescent milieu of The New School in the early 60s, it is mainly a film of dialogues and closed spaces. The couple’s dining room, the university hall, the press-room and the courtroom in Jerusalem provide convenient settings for the much inflamed debate that is here being narrated. Essentially a “spoken” movie, Hannah Arendt thus falls into a double tradition, that of philosophical cinema, and that of trial film – including a classic work on the same topic, such as Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg (1961). This is, in turn, the main merit and the main weakness of the film. Von Trotta and Kats succeed insomuch as they give a central role to Arendt’s insatiable quest for truth, to her non-nationalist idea of agape, and to her intellectual rigor. Hannah Arendt is mostly effective when it engages in philosophical discussion, refusing to remake the protagonist’s life into a sappy romance (a common pitfall of biographical movies dealing with female writers and thinkers). The discussion, however, becomes at times schematic and scholastic, somehow reminiscent of a philosophic dialogue where each character must embody a certain point of view, and where the spoken lines must also provide some historical and philosophical background. And yet, it would be impossible to narrate such a gruesome and complex story without some degree of simplification, if someone in the audience fails to understand its most controversial aspect and asks for clarification of Arendt’s thought in the Q&A time.
Hannah Arendt is an intrinsically political movie, trying to answer a fundamental question about mankind and its ultimate, horrifying truth, as it was revealed to us by the historical experience of Auschwitz. Yet, if it ends being more than a philosophical commentary but it also captures the essence of a person, we must especially thank the quality of its interpreters. “We are so used to consider rationality and passion as two conflicting halves, than the idea of ‘thinking’ being the same as ‘living’ terrifies me,” says young Hannah to her mentor in a scene of the film. Surely enough Sukowa – who mockingly apologizes for being “no philosopher, just a blonde”in the Q&A time — was able to keep the two together in her acting.