Roger Ebert once observed that movies about writers are hard to make, because the act of writing isn't especially cinematic. I thought of that as I watched the interesting, not altogether satisfying docudrama Hannah Arendt, in which there is a whole lot of typing going on. You might say Ebert's insight goes double for political theorists like Arendt, because ideas, intellectual frameworks, also are hard to film.
True, these aren't just any ideas. Arendt is best known for her reporting on Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi official who, in the early 1960s, was tried and executed in Israel for his role in organizing the Holocaust. Her celebrated book The Origins of Totalitarianism deals with one of the most pressing human-rights issues of her time, and our time, state-sponsored murder. This obviously is emotionally charged material, and it's moving to watch Arendt, who fled Nazi Germany, think some of it through. Sometimes she cries a little.
Arendt is played, with forceful brittleness, by Barbara Sukowa. Director and co-writer Margarethe von Trotta shows us some of Arendt's earlier life in flashbacks, but the film mostly focuses on the Eichmann trial and its aftermath. Arendt, who teaches at the New School, wants to write about the trial and pitches the coverage to The New Yorker. An ensuing scene in the magazine's offices highlights the film's main problem, the sometimes clunky dialogue. Legendary editor William Shawn (Nicholas Woodeson) likes the idea and tries to get a skeptical colleague on board. Someone chimes in with a really awkward line: "She was the first person to write about the Third Reich in the context of Western civilization!"
Shawn gets his way, and soon Arendt is in Jerusalem, where Eichmann watches his court proceedings from inside a protective box made of glass. Arendt is mesmerized by the trial, even as she worries about its particulars: Eichmann's abduction by Israeli agents was extralegal; the state of Israel lacks standing to prosecute him; much of the testimony doesn't relate directly to Eichmann. The trial is cathartic for Israelis, who listen to it huddled around radios.
Furor erupts after The New Yorker publishes Arendt's coverage. Her critics say she blames the Holocaust's victims, and they are scandalized when she argues, with her famous phrase "the banality of evil," that there was nothing especially remarkable about Eichmann. Friends drop her. Her teaching position is threatened. She responds with a valedictory speech that feels like a movie cliché.
In the trial scenes, Von Trotta combines reenactments with archival television footage. It's a striking choice, because we get to see the real war criminal close up. Much of the time he is smirking. There are many chilling images of the Holocaust. This is one.