Barbara Sukowa’s climactic speech as the title character in Margarethe von
Trotta’s Hannah Arendt is perhaps the most significant speech ever put in the mouth of an actress. When was an actress given lines of this weight in a film? Sukowa as Arendt deserves an Oscar nomination at the very least –– and it’s not like me to say this because, firstly, I don't give a shit about the Oscars, and secondly, I hate movie monologues.
But in this case it’s different. Hannah Arendt is about a woman who lived by her words,
by articulation of her passion and her ideas. She was about thinking, and let us not delude ourselves, not in spite of her more
“womanly” traits like emotions –– that, von Trotta and Sukowa make abundantly clear. Picture Maximilian Schell in Judgment at Nuremberg.
Come to think of it, it’s not unlike Chaplin in The Great Dictator, either.
The speech in question is Arendt’s rebuttal to the popular outcry against her New Yorker article
on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, delivered to her university class and faculty. While Chaplin spoke directly to our emotions to call on our humanity,
Sukowa as Arendt reminds us to think –– that it was a massive neglect of this human faculty that led to the horrors of WWII. And not unlike
Schell’s attorney given the thankless task of defending the judges who implemented the Nuremberg Laws, Arendt has to clarify her position to
her public who lust after a simpler –– “easy” would be offensive in this case –– answer, an absolute yes or no.
Hannah Arendt, a former student and lover of Martin Heidegger at University of Marburg,
survived internment at Camp Gurs in France, where she had been exiled. Now a happy émigrée with a prestigious teaching post at
New York’s The New School, she maintains an affectionate intimacy with her husband Heinrich, surrounded by adoring friends both German
and American. Her life changes abruptly when she hears the news that Adolf Eichmann, responsible for organizing mass-deportation of
Jews to death camps, was caught in Argentina. He is extradited to be tried in Israel. Hannah decides to cover the trial for The New Yorker, over
the protest of her husband, worried that the experience would plunge her back into the “dark days.”
In Jerusalem, after a warm reunion with a friend from prewar years, Hannah gets to work.
Here von Trotta incorporates the actual videotaped footage from the 1961 trial –– which was compiled as The Specialist in 1999.
The bespectacled, balding Nazi behind the bullet-proof glass has an eerie presence; I wondered for a minute who this actor portraying
the criminal was.
Instead of a monster, she finds in Eichmann an insignificant bureaucrat who simply
“carried out orders.” His fault was that he never questioned his humanity or the carefully constructed zeitgeist. He is an incarnation of
“the banality of evil” –– the phrase Arendt coined for the occasion –– where monstrous deeds are not carried out by übermenschen, rather
born of collective mindlessness. Of course, that’s not what the people want to hear; what they wanted was to put History on trial –– as Hannah herself
ominously predicted before leaving for Jerusalem –– not one man, let alone an ordinary man like themselves.
When Arendt’s article appears in The New Yorker, the readers, as the editors had feared,
cannot get past one paragraph in which Arendt mentions the inabilities of “Jewish leaders” to interfere in the process of mass deportation.
She is accused of “blaming the victims” and called a “self-hating Jew.” Now she is the one on trial in the kangaroo court of popular opinion.
The film masterfully weaves dialogue of its personages to reveal Arendt’s ideas, her readers’
reactions and the arguments of her supporters, and within the character of Hannah in her many moments of introspection, doubts and regrets
as well as intellectual ferocity. And composer André Mergenthaler’s music is pitch-perfect: It effectively disappears, as it should, as the drama
heats up, to return at the end to underscore the emotional ambiguity (not to be mistaken with moral ambivalence).
When Arendt gives her speech to a packed lecture hall, her students give her a standing ovation.
But one of her former classmates from Marburg remains unmoved. He can never forgive her. Nor could her friend in Jerusalem.
It becomes painfully apparent that she has irrevocably hurt some people dear to her, by challenging their instinctive trust in their “own kind.”
This trust had become synonymous with self-preservation and constituted an emotional home for the displaced. “Maybe I wanted to find out who
my real friends are,” she says facetiously. She did, but at what expense? –– Rika Ohara