A Smart Take on 'Hannah Arendt'

Barbara Sukowa in Hannah Arendt
I don't usually repost articles here on Cinemablographer--I usually just share stories with a Tweet--but there's a really good read over at Indiewire on a film that I always felt I glossed over during my coverage at TIFF. That film, Margarethe von Trotta's Hannah Arendt, struck me with its thrilling take on academia as the director used a deceptively conventional biopic structure to realize the days in which the famed philosopher wrote her treatise The Banality of Evil. I especially liked the performances by Barbara Sukowa as Arendt, who does great things with a cigarette, and co-star Janet McTeer. Hannah Arendt got a mere capsule review from me during the festival, but it received a slight revisit when I reviewed Germany's Oscar entry Barbara later in January.

Hannah Arendt is currently doing gangbusters in limited release, as it opened to strong box office returns on just two screens in New York. A burning hot summer doesn't seem like the conventional recipe for success for a foreign language biopic, so it's not surprising that someone was bound to question whether this true story was doing justice to its subject. Hannah Arendt receives the kind of intellectual critique it deserves thanks to an intriguing article by David Moretz, a Philosophy Ph.D. who contributes an insightful article to Indiewire. Moretz smartly engages with von Trotta's cinematic depiction of Arendt's life while examining the film's fidelity to Arendt's philosophy. Does the film betray its subject for entertainment? Hardly. Moretz writes:

While "Hannah Arendt" has great appeal to those of us steeped in the history of Western philosophy, its appeal is by no means confined to residents of ivory towers. Without either dumbing down the material or assuming a background philosophical knowledge, von Trotta lets the audience wrestle with the same intellectual problems that Arendt herself did during this process, including letting many of Arendt’s critics -- many of whom were friends and colleagues -- argue against Arendt’s views.

... Perhaps the greatest problem faced by von Trotta as a filmmaker was how to effectively present the moments of interiority that are essential to the story of the film. These years saw many large and dramatic external events in Arendt's life, and in those of the people around her.  At the same time, much of what needed to be presented was her process of articulating her famous concept of the "banality of evil" (and related analyses).  The fact that Sukowa is such an amazing and expressive actor certainly helps in this task, but the problem remains. In one truly lovely device, von Trotta shows Arendt in her New York study, surrounded by piles of transcripts from the trial, with many voices of those who testified echoing in ghostly fragments. What we hear is not full statements by any given person, but it is enough to have a sense of one victim as it fades into the testimony of another. Over time, von Trotta depicts Arendt's internalization of the meanings of these comments into her own synthetic picture, but the movie doesn't have the common flat-footedness of simply narrating a single document by a voice-over by its writer.

Moretz articulates Hannah Arendt's ability to capture the intellectual process much more eloquently than I can, as he ties together the kind of observations that make for both a great piece of conventional film criticism and an engaging intellectual argument. Hannah Arendt shows that a film need not forgo big ideas to make great cinema. The Indiewire article includes ample discussion of the film's depictions of some of the most controversial moments from Arendt's life, such as her relationship with Martin Heiddegger, which invite lengthy discussion after the film ends. Hannah Arendt prompted the most intelligent post-screening Q&A I've ever enjoyed at the festival, so this really is a film that you want to see with a group, especially an opinionated one. Lengthy discussions are bound to find their way to patios and wine bars near your local theatre.

Thanks again to Dr. Moretz for his smart take on Hannah Arendt. Read it in its entirety here before/after you see the film.

Hannah Arendt opens in Toronto at TIFF Bell Lightbox on June 21st.
It's Ottawa release is TBA, but The ByTowne tweeted that they plan on booking it for the summer.