Thinking is a lonely business

Ania Ostrowska is taken with Barbara Sukowa's audacious portrayal of Hannah Arendt in a recent biopic by Margarethe von Trotta

, 7 October 2013

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Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) is one of the women in the public eye with whom many feminists have an axe to grind. This is hardly surprising: Arendt, a prominent political theorist and philosopher who taught at numerous American universities, including Princeton, where she was the first woman to be awarded a full professorship, kept her distance from the contemporary Women’s Liberation Movement as well as any feminist labels. In the 1970s many feminist writers expressed their discontent: Adrienne Rich famously described Arendt’s work as “tragedy of a female mind nourished on male ideologies”.

Arendt’s political and philosophical beliefs were rooted in her early 20th century classics and philosophy education at German universities of Marburg, where she attended the seminars of Martin Heidegger, and Heidelberg. She was interested in the uniqueness of each and every one of us and hence reluctant to align with any identity politics, no matter how emancipatory. Arendt would not dwell on the ways women are different to men; after Marxist theorist Rosa Luxemburg, she was rather keen to cry out: “Vive la petite différence!”.

Arendt admired Luxemburg and devoted an essay to her in her collection of intellectual biographies Men in Dark Times (she did not use gender-inclusive vocabulary either!). It is then fitting that German director Margarethe von Trotta, one of the leaders of the New German Cinema movement and very much interested in history as actively influencing the present, made a film about Arendt, following her critically acclaimed 1986 biopic of Luxemburg.

Arendt’s concept of the “banality of evil” is still used to analyse how responsibility gets disseminated and diminished in highly bureaucratised systems

Hannah Arendt (2012) is not a “true biopic”, encompassing her entire life story, but rather an “event biopic”. It spans three years in the early 1960s when Arendt (played dashingly by Barbara Sukowa), who had lived in New York since 1941, is sent by The New Yorker magazine to Jerusalem to report from the controversial trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. The film starts with the capture of Eichmann by Mossad agents in Argentina in 1960 and continues through the trial (excerpts of black and white archival footage are rather successfully incorporated into the film) and the 1962 verdict, culminating in the storm triggered by the publication of Arendt’s five-part article (and later the book) ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’ in 1963.

There are flashbacks to Arendt’s intellectual fascination by and an ensuing youthful affair with Martin Heidegger (Klaus Pohl), her philosophy professor in Marburg in the 1920s. The awkwardness of this relationship in Arendt’s biography lies not as much in the fact that Heidegger was married and 17 years her senior, but rather that in 1933, after being elected the rector of University of Freiburg, he joined the Nazi Party and didn’t denounce this decision until the end of his life (the last of the flashbacks is of the couple meeting up after the war, with Arendt passionately pleading with Heidegger to publicly repent).

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In a series of painful conversations with her friends and family, as well as in her lectures, another crucial link with the past is established. Before Arendt, together with her husband Heinrich Blücher (Axel Milberg), managed to escape occupied France in 1941, she was kept in Gurs internment camp. In 1942, all Jews from the camp were sent to Auschwitz as part of the Final Solution orchestrated by Eichmann. Towards the end of the film, Hans Jonas (Ulrich Noethen), one of her friends who becomes estranged from her after the Eichmann report, bitterly points out that only narrowly did Arendt escape such a fate.

The film does a good job of mounting the tension as the news of Eichmann’s capture reaches Arendt’s cosy New York intellectual milieu. Despite her heavy German accent, Sukowa’s Arendt effortlessly navigates dinner parties in her apartment with a Hudson River view, filled with American and émigré writers and academics. Relaxed and almost playful, she chats with her best friend, writer Mary McCarthy (compelling Janet McTeer), carefree even if the topic is men’s unfaithfulness in general and her husband’s not-that-discreet affair with psychoanalyst Charlotte Beradt (Victoria Trauttmansdorff) in particular.

I found it overly theatrical, making the point quite pompously: “Look, she is now thinking

Then in Jerusalem we see Arendt following (then) live broadcasts of the court’s proceedings on the screens in the press room and expressively reacting to some testimonies as her ideas about Eichmann and the trial take shape. Throughout the film, the act of thinking is suggested by the heroine’s constant smoking, often combined with staring in space while lying on a day bed. This may work for some viewers, but I found it overly theatrical, making the point quite pompously: “Look, she is now thinking“.

The role is Sukowa’s tour de force, perfectly matching the director’s take on the Eichmann in Jerusalem controversy. The events develop strictly from Arendt’s perspective, one of a brave thinker of particular intellectual pedigree who in Eichmann found – as many have recently suggested, quite wrongly – the crystallisation of her “banality of evil” theory. Arendt’s highlighting of the role of Jewish councils in the Shoah lost her many friends and earned her a label of arrogant, self-hating Jew devoid of human feelings (in the film grotesquely portrayed in the reactions of her university colleagues).Janet_McTeer.jpg

Against such charges, von Trotta tries to show us Arendt’s ‘human face’ by putting her in a domestic setting, as she cuts onions for dinner and calls Blücher pet names: it is up to the viewer to decide how effective this strategy is. Arendt powerfully asserts that she can only love her friends and never ‘her people’, even as we see her losing said friends after her scathing critique of some Jews. Her close friendship with Mary McCarthy is beautifully depicted in the film, even though in her reluctance to feminism as emancipatory movement, Arendt rejected solidarity built on the fact of shared gender.

50 years after Arendt published her reflections on Eichmann’s trial, her concept of the “banality of evil” is still used to analyse how responsibility gets disseminated and diminished in highly bureaucratised systems. In one of the flashbacks Martin Heidegger cautions young Hannah: “Thinking is a lonely business”. Arendt’s body of work remains an example of audacious and consequent thinking against all odds, and often against critics and friends alike.

Photos are stills from the film, courtesy of Soda Pictures.

Hannah Arendt is on general release now.

Ania Ostrowska is The F-Word’s film editor. In her previous life she started a PhD that meant to combine Hannah Arendt’s ideas with theoretical approaches in the Study of Religions but abandoned it as thinking proved too lonely a business.

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