Looking Back #1: Hannah Arendt

I wanted my return from a hectic few weeks to be about a film I absolutely loved and while I recently watched and thoroughly enjoyed The Book Thief, a review of which will be up in the coming days, I enjoyed a film released last year far more. I could have written about Reign Over Me and the serendipitous events that pushed me to buy it in a second hand DVD store in my hometown despite knowing nothing about its wonderful story and the terrific Adam Sandler performance it contains (While that may sound like a punchline to some, I guarantee you it is not.)


However I chose differently. I ultimately came to the conclusion that in the past weeks I have seen just one film that made me ponder life and our role in this world in the way I should. That film is Hannah Arendt, the story of a German philosopher who escaped Nazi occupied France and came to America for protection. However the film is not about that at all, it’s about understanding the people and world that you have been presented with and how religion, despite its many blessings, can distort the concept of the truth and unbiased scientific thought.


Here is my review.


Hannah Arendt (2013)


Directed by Margarethe Von Trotta


Written by Pam Katz and Margarethe Von Trotta


Hannah Arendt is a fascinating woman. Her writing is intelligent and well thought out, her ability to contain her own status (she is a Jewish woman writing about the nature of evil after all) for the sake of her writing is inspirational and thats where Katz and Von Trotta found inspiration for their story. The film doesn’t follow her escape from the Nazi’s, her struggle to fit in, in war bound America, it follows her and the writings that brought her fame, misery and respect in equal measure.


The film follows Arendt (Barbara Sukowa) as she gets wrapped up in the story of the capture of Adolf Eichmann in Buenos Aires 1960. When she asks to go and write for The New Yorker on the trial she is forced to face the life she had before her move to America and a shameful part of her past. However she must be more wary of the effects her unique view of the world and the trial itself has on her friends and colleagues.


To an atheist like myself its easier to detach yourself from the ideas of god/s and paradise but for someone with faith it must be that much harder to separate your beliefs in a higher power and your understanding of science and philosophy. While the film may follow Arendt, it’s easy to see the other side of the coin, the way her writings can feel damming to someone connected so closely to Judaism. Von Trotta manages to avoid painting anyone out to be the bad guy, even to an extent Eichmann and that is the beauty of the film, its a discussion of humanity not just through the people we meet along the way but through the ideas and debates they encourage. Katz’s delicately written screenplay makes the search for meaning a captivating one while also showing us why Arendt is such an intriguing subject for a feature film.


People talk about Arendt throughout the film as many different things, callous, a genius, a hypocrite and most of all, a courageous woman. The odd thing is, none of those labels truly understand the woman. Sure she is incredibly intelligent and Sukowa takes great pleasure in bringing that enthusiasm for debate and continued thought to light, but that is to be expected from an academic (at least I assume it does, thats just me). Arendt is really just a thinker, someone who has devoted her life to further understanding everything, even the little things. Her journey to Israel to watch the trial doesn’t change the woman she is at all. Her objectivity allows her to write something others simply refuse to see and while it has unforeseen side effects for her, her devotion to writing it isn’t about ridicule or picking sides, its about the truth.


Filled with two beautiful performances by Sukowa and Janet McTeer, who plays author Mary McCarthy, a close confidant of Arendt’s who makes up for not speaking a word of German with her own brand of sass and charm. The two make quite the pair and the scenes they share together are electric. However there is a moment halfway through the film that McTeer uses to create an unexpectedly joyous moment of levity that lighten the previously harsh proceedings, a moment of wonderful conviction as McCarthy happily rips into a group of snobbish intellectuals looking to capitalize off Arendt’s work because they appear to have nothing better to do (or write). The film however belongs to Sukowa as she attempts to get inside the mind of Arendt without imitating her in any way, a tough task.


While I’m not suggesting to understand the woman after reading a few of her articles in preparation for this post but her writing style is oddly compelling and easy to follow for a philosopher and that comes out in Sukowa’s performance as she marries together the charm of the woman with the fiercely determined woman willing to write anything that she thinks is true. Sukowa controls the pace of every scene as she toys with the audience as they try to understand her. It’s not however until the film’s final moments that we really do understand Arendt and thats fine by me as the film’s final moments are a breathtaking mix of excellent writing, convincing and captivating acting and a true story worth telling. Von Trotta’s story comes to life in Sukowa’s hands.


Ultimately I find Hannah Arendt as a person to be a fascinating study but I also find Hannah Arendt the film an important picture regardless of the woman’s standing in history. The film makes you care about the woman, her persecution sees to that, and it also makes this seemingly unimportant, personal struggle that see endures something much more than that, it acts as a way to understand religion and the many effects it has on people and how it caused one of the worst events in history. I don’t proclaim to know everything about the woman because of one biopic but I’m excited to learn more now.

 Have you seen Hannah Arendt? If so, what did you think? Leave something in the comment section to let me know.


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