A biopic with a lively theatrical spirit and BBC Four poise, ‘Hannah Arendt’ is a probing and clear-eyed study of the German-Jewish political philosopher who famously reported on the trial of Nazi official Adolf Eichmann. Arendt, played by German actress Barbara Sukowa, is portrayed as the reigning lady-of-letters of her day: a sexy intellectual, veteran of the French Resistance and ex-lover of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (he joined the Nazi Party in 1933). In 1960, we find her hobnobbing in her plush Manhattan apartment with New York’s intellectual elite, trading bon mots with American critic Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer). Trendily tolerant, Arendt even allows her husband some action on the side.
Stunned by the news that Israel has captured Eichmann in Argentina, she hurries to Jerusalem to cover his trial for The New Yorker. The magazine is overjoyed to have such a prestigious thinker on board. But the affair turns sour when Arendt writes an impassioned and controversial take on the trial. Incredulous that such an ordinary man as Eichmann could have executed the Final Solution, her conclusion is that the Nazi machine created an army of faceless bureaucrats. For Arendt, Eichmann wasn’t an inhuman monster; he was functionary robbed of moral choice by a system more powerful than the sum of its parts. His normality was terrifying, and Arendt coined the term ‘the banality of evil’. The film’s tragedy is her struggle to cope with the article’s backlash, particularly the offence it caused some Jewish friends and colleagues, who accused her of defending Eichmann. A timely testament to intellectual bravery, this is a film that resonates as a portrait of a fearless woman.