Biopic’s clear biases create slanted picture of historical events
“Hannah Arendt” is hagiography of the most egregious kind. It makes “Lincoln” look like a smear job. It focuses on the early 1960s, when the German-born philosopher left her New York home to observe the Jerusalem trial of the Nazis’ Jewish-deportation chief, Adolf Eichmann, and wrote it up for the New Yorker.
Director Margarethe von Trotta (who co-wrote the script with Pamela Katz) depicts Arendt as the era’s lone seeker after moral truth. In this film’s view, Israelis are too concerned with getting out the facts about the Holocaust to judge the merits of this individual case.
Other Europeans, Americans and emigres are either not advanced enough in their post-Holocaust thinking – or too protective of the Jewish community – to buy either her sweeping analysis of Eichmann as a mediocre bureaucrat, not an anti-Semitic monster, or her carefully nuanced suggestion that Jewish community leaders in some ways colluded with Eichmann in the deportation of Jews to the death camps.
Her thesis of the “banality of evil” – that people living within the legal framework of a totalitarian regime will carry out evil and think they are normal – has become a useful focus of research and debate. But many scholars question Eichmann as an example of “banality.” They note that in his trial testimony he crowed about how thoroughly and cleverly he had executed the Final Solution.
In “Hannah Arendt,” not all New York intellectuals are too myopic to appreciate her brilliance. She has an understanding Marxist-philosopher husband, Heinrich Blucher, and a scintillating, acerbic novelist friend, Mary McCarthy. She can count on their support when her articles rouse debates among men (and they are all men) who are overemotional, atavistic or simply unable to face the truth. Throughout the film, Arendt herself is a paragon of patience and wisdom.
This movie strenuously works to position Arendt as a key influence on our modern consciousness. But it ends up resembling a juiceless version of Old Hollywood’s reverent biographical blockbuster “The Life of Emile Zola” (1937).
Consider the parallels: Zola pillories the prosecutors of the Dreyfus case for their anti-Semitism. Arendt attacks the prosecutors of Eichmann for refusing to believe that he was not a rabid anti-Semite. Unthinking Parisians threaten Zola. Jewish thinkers vilify Arendt.
As a movie, “Hannah Arendt” is thinly textured, but it draws a melodramatic pull from its Manichean plot mechanics. It doesn’t have the heartbreak climax that “Zola” had, with Zola dying from carbon monoxide poisoning. But von Trotta does her best to make up for it, staging Arendt’s attempt to patch up her friendship with her dumbfounded Zionist friend Kurt Blumenfeld (Michael Degen) on his deathbed.
Even if von Trotta were able to prove Arendt’s concepts in this bowed-head biopic, her woman-against-the-world dramaturgy would still be appalling. The “good-guy” performances border on caricature, whether it’s Janet McTeer’s tough-broad interpretation of McCarthy or Axel Milberg’s cozy, uxorious Blucher. Barbara Sukowa’s ability to depict Arendt as a passionate thinker would be impressive if the film weren’t rigged to make Arendt’s correctness seem an open-and-shut case.
Were all her adversaries unworthy? Saul Bellow, for one, agreed that Hitler turned his desire for “Jews to be destroyed” into “a wish (that) was tantamount to an order.” But Bellow derided “people easily satisfied with formulas” for reducing “the demonic genius of this political achievement” to “the banality of evil.”
The publishers of “Eichmann Interrogated” (1983), which contained selected transcripts of his pretrial interrogation, properly asked whether his testimony would “reinforce Arendt’s perception of Eichmann as quintessentially ‘normal.’ Or is it possible that she and others were misled by a charade he had carefully rehearsed?”
“Hannah Arendt” never poses that question.