Interesting that the stories behind the reporting and writing of separate The New Yorker articles could translate into a string of fascinating, very different movies. The latest, “Hannah Arendt,” is one of the most compelling films I’ve seen this year.
First there was “Adaptation,” screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s manic, deconstructive approach to Susan Orlean’s New Yorker story of orchid thieves in the Florida swamps. Next came the two Truman Capote movies (“Capote” and “Infamous”) based on his writing of In Cold Blood. Now here’s “Hannah Arendt,” an absorbing portrait of the Jewish philosopher who fled early from Hitler’s Germany and whose attempt to comprehend Holocaust crimes was intensely misunderstood when The New Yorker printed her five-part essay in 1963.
Let’s start with the most important element here: actress Barbara Sukowa as Arendt. A Werner Fassbinder muse in the few short years before that director’s death (starring in “Lola” and the epic “Berlin Alexanderplatz”), she’s too rarely seen on American screens. Here’s a prime chance to witness a performance of great confidence, subtlety and skill.
We meet Arendt in 1960 in New York, home for 20 years to her and her husband, poet and philosopher Heinrich Blücher (Axel Milberg). She teaches at the New School, he at Bard. Their friends include various expatriates, such as her academic colleague and longtime friend Hans Jonas (Ulrich Noethen) and blustery American novelist Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer), just on the verge of publishing her best seller, “The Group.” Hannah’s and Heinrich’s world is one of smart cocktail parties and a million fuming cigarettes. But dissonant, melancholy notes creep in at the edges.
The world is still trying to cope with the revelation of the Nazis’ “Final Solution” and the death camps less than two decades before. One especially uneasy fact for Hannah is her intimate relationship as a young woman with her then-professor Martin Heidegger (Klaus Pohl), a philosopher who shocked his circle by supporting the Nazis. (We see the younger Arendt, played in brief flashbacks by Friederike Becht, interacting with her mentor and lover in easier, pre-Hitler years.)
Arendt decides to face the past directly when news comes that the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, has abducted escaped SS Commander Adolf Eichmann, one of the main architects of the Holocaust, from his incognito life in Argentina. Israel intends to try him for war crimes in Jerusalem. And Arendt persuades New Yorker editor William Shawn (Nicholas Woodeson) to send her to cover the trial — over the objections of friends and her husband, who feel that she may be setting herself up for an emotional ambush.
On the contrary, she approaches the proceedings with typically rigorous, unsentimental eyes. What she sees in Eichmann comes as a surprise: “He’s not spooky at all,” she says. “He’s a nobody.” A nobody who insists that he was just following orders, doing his job. A bureaucrat.
It’s in her coverage of the trial for The New Yorker that Arendt formulates the now-famous notion of “the banality of evil.” But that is not what readers want, especially her fellow Jews. And especially when she suggests that Jewish leaders, by cooperating to various degrees with the National Socialists, may have actually made it easier for Hitler’s Nazis to kill six million people.
Frenzied detractors accuse Arendt of blaming the victims. Instead of recognizing that she is indicting the ways that totalitarianism degrades and dehumanizes all people, be they victims or aggressors, they see her words as an attempt to somehow defend Eichmann. Seen in effectively used clips from the actual trial in 1961, he’s an unpleasant little man with a dismissive twist to his lip, as if sucking on citrus. But he’s no Satan; he’s not even the sort of lower-circle monster whom those wrestling with the horrors of the Shoah want the Nazi operatives manifestly to be. How more horrifying it is that these efficient agents of hell were regular men and women.
A fascinating and thought-provoking film, intelligently directed by Margarethe von Trotta (“The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum”), “Hannah Arendt” is endlessly talky but thoroughly engrossing. That’s mainly due to Sukowa. She has that rare gift, the ability to convey deep thought and a rich inner life. Her face shifts with stunning speed from brainy flirtatiousness to stony, sphinx-like opacity. And she nails the personality trait that detractors ascribe to Arendt most: arrogance. But if it’s arrogance, it’s hard-won and based on faith in her own intelligence. There’s a supple sexiness to this journalist-philosopher, who is repeatedly described as all head, no heart. That description is contradicted by her playfully loving relationship with Heinrich, whose on-the-side relationship with a female friend Hannah treats as perfectly natural, and probably a good thing. The supporting cast, especially McTeer’s dragon-lady novelist, is strong. But Sukowa’s most reliable co-star is a lit cigarette.
In the end, “Hannah Arendt” is an object lesson in the risk of speaking out against established, black-and-white orthodoxy. People don’t want shades of gray or any suggestion that people (meaning themselves) are driven by anything other than goodness or nobility. Evil may indeed be banal. This movie is anything but.
“Hannah Arendt.” With Barbara Sukowa, Axel Milberg, Janet McTeer. Directed by Margarethe von Trotta. In German, English and other languages, with subtitles. Unrated. 113 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.