Fear of the gap between intellect and emotion serves as the premise for Margarethe von Trotta’s limp biopic of Hannah Arendt’s life.
Arendt’s seminal work, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, was first serialised in the New Yorker magazine. Von Trotta’s film focuses on the criticism she then received for intellectualising and trying to understand the actions of the man on trial. It further looks at the controversy surrounding her implication of several Jewish leaders, who failed to intervene in genocide. Though never denying Arendt was one of the great minds of the twentieth century, von Trotta’s sentimentalising account reduces the remarkable thinker to a puppet for melodrama.
The film begins with Arendt’s relationships: romantic, professional and personal. Through her enduring love for her husband, and clever banter with colleagues, friends and students, we see a woman who enjoys entertaining and thrives on attention from others. Even her provocations, though often spurring debate, never quite cause the rabble to row. Admired by everyone, her keen observations are presented as playful witticisms. Characterising her personal relationships as genuine and heartfelt at the outset of the film is what gives the later dig at her lack of emotional intelligence the histrionic sting in its tail.
Having spent more than enough time creating a likeable character, von Trotta finally gets to the point: Arendt’s trip to Jerusalem. In one of the hammiest exchanges ever committed to film, three commissioning editors at The New Yorker discuss Arendt’s proposal to cover the trial of Adolf Eichmann.
Female editor: Who is she to be offering to write for The New Yorker?
Male editor: She wrote The Origins of Totalitarianism!
Female editor: Catchy title!
Male editor: One of the most important books of the 20th Century. Read it!
Female editor: Uh-oh, she’s not one of those European philosophers is she? Philosophers don’t make deadlines.
The scene plays out like a cola advertisement. Set in the ‘50s and ‘60s against a backdrop of New York office spaces, the sets and costumes could easily have been recycled from Mad Men. Each of these English language exchanges (most of the dialogue is in German) reveals a structure and style more typical of the telemovie than enduring cinema.
When Arendt arrives in Jerusalem, the film momentarily rises above standard fare, asking something of the viewer: intercutting narrative re-enactment with black and white footage from the actual trial, von Trotta confronts the audience for the first and only time. The footage might serve to support Arendt’s thesis; as Eichmann stands before the courtroom, in the form of a middle-aged man, he seems no more of a monster than anyone else present – or those of us watching the film. The decision to include this material goes some way to illustrating Arendt’s point: no matter how difficult it is to come to terms with the idea that someone can articulate their role in genocide as akin to a good work ethic, there is no visible stamp of ‘pure evil’ in Eichmann.
Still, von Trotta, perhaps too wary to make the same statement that Arendt became famous for, shies away from presenting his testimony as banal. By sandwiching the footage between slices of her own over-the-top drama, she emphasises the feelings we should associate with the crimes. The conversations Arendt has with her friends when court breaks provide a pretext for the audience to feel justified in hating the man on trial. The discussion between Arendt and others, even when it errs on the side of intellectualising the day’s proceedings, always concludes that he must be held responsible for his actions.
Back in New York, Arendt has transcribed the trial but not yet turned in her dossier. As she avoids phone calls from the New Yorker we see that the female editor’s scathing intuition was bang on when it came to deadlines. Philosophy is trivialised as an arrogant and indulgent practise. This predictable foreshadowing make von Trotta’s dramatic peaks play out like a soap opera.
Ultimately, the presentation of Arendt is as intelligent but bullish, as if her brilliance were somehow hindered by her inability to write with feeling. The price, we soon see, is the respect and admiration of many, including some of her former friends.
Intellectualising the human condition might be, for some, oxymoronic. To talk about ‘the banality of evil’ in the context of the Holocaust certainly makes a lot of people uncomfortable. Such an atrocity shouldn’t be comprehensible; if it can be understood then the guilt of those involved is – on some level – absolved. But rather than address what makes this tension between intellect and emotion such prickly terrain, von Trotta goes for theatricality. She even reimagines Arendt’s love affair with Martin Heidegger, to groanworthy effect.
When I first heard about this film I was keen to see it, to learn more about the woman whose words have changed the way we think about the world. At that time, I thought it was a documentary for it is simply titled: Hannah Arendt. Documentary, among other things, sets out to inform its audience. Theory and philosophy, which Arendt wrote, tries to understand its subject. Finally, drama, to which the biopic belongs, is determined only to make its audience feel.
As the narrative eventually finds its conclusion, following Arendt’s public defence of her writing, Von Trotta seems determined to either find feeling in the woman whose words shocked the world, or, to crucify her for not being human enough. Clearly unable to decide which is more powerful, she does both. In the final scene Arendt sits alone, musing over her crucial mistake, ‘Evil cannot be banal and radical at once. Evil is only ever extreme. It’s never radical. Only good can be profound and radical.’
Von Trotta’s film is neither profound, nor radical. It belongs to that grand dramatic tradition that trivialises and sentimentalises history until all that’s left is a series of generic conventions. Those tropes wear down our critical faculties and stop us from thinking: such is the banality of biopic.