Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Review: "Hannah Arendt"

Hannah Arendt was a German political theorist and philosopher who coined the phrase banality of evil while reporting on the 1961 trial of Nazi criminal Adolf Eichmann. Margarethe von Trotta's film Hannah Arendt deals primarily with Arendt's response to the Eichmann trial for The New Yorker. Her writing caused a maelstrom of controversy for her suggestion that Eichmann was so entrenched in Nazi politics that he was unable to make decisions on his own. Margarethe von Trotta is a renowned German director, and one of the world's foremost feminist filmmakers. In Hannah Arendt, von Trotta reunites with actress Barbara Sukowa in their fourth collaboration. Sukowa won a Best Actress prize at Cannes in 1986 for their film Rosa Luxembourg. Hannah Arendt premiered at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival to rave reviews, particularly for Sukowa's performance. Hannah Arendt balances English and German dialogue, and for that reason it feels less like an art house foreign film (compared to Christian Petzold's Cold War drama Barbara). Upon the strong recommendation of a colleague, I was eagerly anticipating its release. The film itself was much different than I had expected. The film is less about political intrigue than one woman's belief that she has made the right choice. I still quite liked the film, but I would have preferred a little more political intrigue. Hannah Arendt is wholly dependent on the strong performance of Barbara Sukowa, but it focuses too heavily on her isolation. Von Trotta has chosen a feminist focus when the film might have been more profound had she balanced her screenplay with its historical importance.

Hannah Arendt was a Holocaust survivor and in 1961 she was living in New York City with her husband Heinrich (Axel Milberg). She was a German professor at The New School. After Adolf Eichmann was captured by Mossad agents, Hannah approached American magazine editor William Shawn (father of Wallace!) to write a series of articles for The New Yorker based on the trial. Hannah traveled to and from Jerusalem multiple times to gather research. When it was finally announced that Eichmann would hang for his crimes, Hannah had a terrible time putting her thoughts to paper. She was pressured by Shawn, and evaded his phone calls. Her friendship with Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer), an American political activist, helped to ground her. When her first article was finally published in The New Yorker, Hannah's relationship within her close friends became tense. Hannah Arendt was lambasted for blaming Jewish leaders for their role in the Holocaust.

While Hannah Ardent does not devote much effort into the political landscape, it does dedicate much of its focus to Hannah's emotional turmoil. Barbara Sukowa gives an astonishing performance in the quiet and solitary moments of the film, which are superior to the still-fantastic powerful climax of the film. Without her performance, the film could easily fall into the trap where other biographies have faltered. Just last year, Roger Mitchell's Hyde Park on Hudson tried to focus on a singular moment in Franklin Roosevelt's life, but it made its supporting characters too one-dimensional. There is a lot more that Margarethe von Trotta could have added to her screenplay. There are other voices and opinions that would have helped audiences understand Arendt's choices more clearly. Yet, Hannah Arendt is a film about one woman and the choices she made, not necessarily why she made these choices. It is not the film I expected it to be. I wanted more from the narrative, but I was thrilled by Barbara Sukowa's performance. Funny enough, the only other Sukowa film I have seen is the absolutely terrible Johnny Mnemonic (1995), which is the only feature film directed by Sukowa's husband Robert Longo.

My rating: 3 stars out of 4.

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