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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Hannah Arendt

Spend some time with the fearless, headstrong woman behind 'the banality of evil'.
By Daniel Herborn
March 10, 2014
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Hannah Arendt

Spend some time with the fearless, headstrong woman behind 'the banality of evil'.
By Daniel Herborn
March 10, 2014
  shares

In 1961, Hannah Arendt (Barbara Sukowa) was one of the world's leading academic writers and thinkers, a rock star figure at the university she taught and a fiery leading light amongst the Manhattan intelligentsia. Having escaped from her native Germany as the persecution of Jewish people began though, the spectre of the Holocaust was never far from her thoughts.

An opportunity to return to her homeland arises when the New Yorker commissions her to travel to Germany and cover the trial of Adolf Eichmann. Known as the 'architect of the Holocaust', Eichmann was a high-ranking Nazi lieutenant responsible for transporting Jewish people to concentration camps. After the fall of Berlin, he had escaped to South America before being rounded up by Mossad agents and returned to Europe for the 'trial of the century'.

Instead of being struck by his coldness or inhumanity at the trial, however, Arendt instead finds Eichmann an "unimpressive" and "unremarkable" figure, who presents himself as a bureaucrat who merely followed orders. Her reaction was not the one she expected, nor one many people wanted to hear, but her bafflement at Eichmann's approach to the trial went on to inform a work which helped readers understand how an almost unfathomably dark chapter in human history had unfolded.

The process of writing has long been a difficult one to capture on screen and Hannah Arendt is not immune to this problem, settling for ho-hum shots of Sukowa sitting at a typewriter, endlessly smoking cigarettes, or looking deep in thought as her magazine editors pound the phones, eager for the elusive first draft.

The film's main focus, however, is not the process of thinking through the trial and writing the controversial article (it was later expanded into a book) but the fallout after it was published. Many thought it a betrayal of her own Jewish heritage or a slanderous, self-serving provocation. The university where she once received gooey-eyed affection from her adoring students asks her to justify her continued employment there and social schisms spring up as former friends and allies turn against her.

Directed in solid, determinedly no-frills style by Margarethe Von Trotta, Hannah Arendt is a reminder that a work which is now almost universally accepted as a key insight into the horrors of the Holocaust and the operation of a genocidal machine was considered incendiary and worse at the time of publication.

Still, it's not until a late scene where Arendt faces a hostile crowd at a public speaking engagement that this seems to really get to the heart of what made her such a vital figure. For a film centred on a fearless, headstrong character who many saw as arrogant, there's something just too polite about Von Trotta's biopic, a film likely to inspire but not really satisfy, further curiosity in Arendt's work.

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