A passionate, ungainly biopic rendering of the sociopolitical theorist and key 20th-century testifier, Margarethe von Trotta’s latest film focuses entirely on the writer’s engagement with Israel’s 1962 trial of Adolf Eichmann, and the public whiplash that occurred when her articles about “the banality of evil” began appearing in The New Yorker. It was a crucial moment in modern Western culture, with Arendt (Berlin Alexanderplatz’s Barbara Sukowa) at the center of the cyclone, her verbal firefighting acting as its own philosophical raison d’être. (Thanks to her, “evil” was understood to be as much a function of bureaucracy as of ideology—for all the good that’s done us since.)
The German filmmaker has a heavy hand, however, as well as difficulty in nailing Arendt’s American contemporaries (Janet McTeer’s Mary McCarthy is reduced to a bug-eyed girlfriend). Sukowa’s aging-star-impersonating-a-legend ploy feels more iconic than three-dimensional, despite flashbacks to a student-prof affair with Martin Heidegger (Klaus Pohl). Being accused of rationalizing the Third Reich and disowned by Zionist friends doesn’t provide a lot of drama, but the relentless focus on figuring out how we are to think about the Final Solution can be compelling. A movie of one billion cigarettes, Hannah Arendt is about moral reason, not personality. It could do worse than lead you straight to the woman’s books.
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