‘Hannah Arendt’ often reduces complexity to banality

Barbara Sukowa (left, next to Janet McTeer) plays the political theorist in "Hannah Arendt." Credit: Véronique Kolber
Barbara Sukowa (left, next to Janet McTeer) plays the political theorist in “Hannah Arendt.”
Credit: Véronique Kolber

‘Hannah Arendt’
Director: Margarethe Von Trotta
Stars: Barbara Sukowa, Janet McTeer
Rating: NR
2 (out of 5) Globes

Among the fickle populace, political theorist Hannah Arendt’s lasting legacy is her coining of the phrase “the banality of evil,” a term she dreamt up in a controversial piece she wrote about the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann. Arendt, still riding high on her philosophical blockbuster “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” had been sent by The New Yorker to cover the event in Israel, which found the Nazi higher-up finally being tried for his crimes. She was critical of the prosecution’s showboaty tactics, but was even more struck by Eichmann himself. Rather than one of the 20th century’s craftiest monsters, he was, in her view, little more than a “bureaucrat” simply doing a job — a man of bewildering mediocrity.

The brouhaha that followed, with Arendt being called a self-hating Jew and losing close, outraged friends, is the subject of “Hannah Arendt,” a docudrama starring Barbara Sukowa and directed by New German Cinema filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta. It’s a subject that requires a great deftness. Arendt’s summation of the events are, to say the least, quite contestable, particularly her charge that Eichmann wasn’t motivated by anti-Semitism. The safest thing one could say is that her argument was more complex than many (but not all) of her critics claimed.

At times, “Hannah Arendt” honors that complexity. Much of the time, however, it reduces it, ironically, to a simplistic tussle between nice, thoughtful Arendt and her mean, snooty detractors. She is shown anguishing over her New Yorker piece, poring over trial tapes and transcripts, missing deadlines and smoking a lot while staring pensively out of windows. Her critics make derisive quips at parties, while a friend literally turns his back on her. It reduces Arendt to a mere victim, a poor woman who was just asking questions.

As with her last film with Sukowa, the Hildegard von Bingen biopic “Vision,” “Hannah Arendt” is a reductive, indifferently filmed look at a proto-feminist. It, too, benefits greatly from its star’s nuanced work. Arendt may be portrayed as a martyr, but Sukowa plays her as a full person: She’s a restless thinker — she was Heidegger’s favorite pupil — but she can also be arrogant, stubborn and insecure. It’s a rich performance in a film that’s often flat, visually and intellectually, that, unlike other von Trottas, can sporadically also loosen up. In the margins is a loose portrait of a happy, carefree marriage between Arendt and her sickly husband (Axel Milberg), scenes of which stress the human it repeatedly tries to reduce to a sacrificial lamb.


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