Judge Michael Nazarewycz wants to know if philosophy is, indeed, the talk on a cereal box.
"Trying to understand is not the same as forgiveness."
It's no surprise that the filmmaking community continues to tell so many unique, true stories about or related to the Holocaust. An event as tragic as that, with its unfathomable depth and breadth, offers countless storylines that need to be told. Hannah Arendt, from co-writer and director Margarethe von Trotta (Rosenstrasse), travels one of those story lines long after those horrible days ended.
Facts of the Case
The year is 1961. Famed Nazi Adolf Eichmann, having been kidnapped the year before, is set to stand trial in Jerusalem for his war crimes. With the world's eyes fixed on the trial and its outcome, Hannah Arendt (Barbara Sukowa, Romance and Cigarettes), a renowned philosopher and writer of German/Jewish descent, approaches The New Yorker to ask if she can cover the trial for the magazine. They send her to Jerusalem where she watches the trial intently as part of a large pool of reporters. After she leaves, and after reviewing transcripts of the trial as it continues after her departure, she raises a startling theory.
She would come to call it "the banality of evil." In short (relative term), it wonders if evil is radical or if it is a byproduct of thoughtlessness—which is to say it wonders if people are simply so willing to follow orders that they do so without understanding—or at least questioning—the end result of their actions, even if that end result is evil. In her eyes, Eichmann was simply performing a job without considering the consequences of that job. Of course, the global Jewish community is not happy about this view. Adding insult to injury, she questions the actions of Jewish leadership during the Holocaust. The backlash against her is tremendous.
Where most other movies in the Holocaust film category rely heavily on emotion, Hannah Arendt is about as cerebral a film as you're likely to get. This approach—and it isn't so much an approach as it is a mandate based on who the title character is—creates two key challenges for the filmmakers: capturing philosophy on film without putting viewers to sleep, and making Arendt a compelling and sympathetic character. Both come with unique hurdles, and those hurdles are cleared quite well.
In the film's first act (all pre-trial), von Trotta takes great care to ensure that we see Arendt as a "regular" woman, not simply a philosopher. She is madly in love with her husband, Heinrich Blucher (Axel Milberg, The Fifth Estate), she has a smart and sassy best friend in American author Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer, The Woman in Black), and she hosts fabulously smart and charming cocktail parties in her New York City apartment, where she holds court with her fabulously smart and charming friends. Those parties, though, lay the groundwork for the philosophy to come, as debates among friends become more heated as they delve deeper into the intellect.
In the second and third acts, the intellect takes the lead as Arendt constantly faces growing opposition to her theories—at times losing friends and more, which is sad, because she only ever wants to represent the situation as she sees it (a position others call arrogance). The debates she has with others are riveting, thanks mostly to Sukowa's portrayal. Plus, and maybe it's because I'm typically pragmatic, I think her argument is a compelling one. Like the quote above says, "Trying to understand is not the same as forgiveness," and this greater point is Arendt's biggest hurdle when trying to sway her contemporaries and the public. They want no part of it, though; their emotions are too strong.
Of the rest of the cast, only McTeer's name rings a bell with me, but it matters not; everyone involved is solid, giving Sukowa plenty to work with in heated moments and tender ones—and my compliments to von Trotta for not only making a very smart film, but for her excellent use of the trial footage is the film. Even though the imagery is black-and-white and of significantly inferior quality, it is seamlessly integrated. Kudos to editor Bettina Bohler for finely weaving the video and audio into von Trotta's film.
The Hannah Arendt (Blu-ray)'s 2.40:1/1080p transfer is beautiful. I was taken immediately by the opening shot of Arendt, whose image seemed dulled as if she were in a faded snapshot, until the crystal blue of her cigarette smoke rose through the air before her. Other than some beautiful nighttime shots of New York City, the interiors are better than the exteriors thanks to excellent lighting work. The DTS-HD 5.1 track is clear, but only ever challenged during the courtroom and party scenes, where crosstalk and overlapping dialogue compete.
There are three extras included on (and with) the disc. The deleted scenes are actually one series of scenes involving Arendt having been in a car accident prior to her taking the role with the magazine. It would have been meaningless if included in the film, although there is a darling line from her husband about how Arendt, bearing post-accident facial bruising, looks like a "somewhat unsuccessful Picasso."
The 30-minute making-of is an excellent look at what went into the filmmaking process, from director von Trotta's concerns with how to portray "a thinker" on film to integrating the actual trial footage into the film. Lastly, there is an invaluable booklet enclosed with the Blu that offers the director's musings and a brief bio on Arendt. More importantly, it lists the players in the film and what they mean to the story, as well as parallel timelines—one for Arendt, one for Eichmann—running from their births (both in 1906) through each of their deaths. While this is not the most robust extras package, in the context of what type of film Hannah Arendt is, the booklet alone is great.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I'm not a big fan of the ending of the film, as it was the one time I felt like I was being lectured to. It features Arendt, having been pummeled by friend and foe alike, offering a rousing self-defense speech to a hall full of college students and faculty. From an execution standpoint, it's well-delivered on both sides of the camera. It just feels like the ending of a special episode of Law & Order.
Hannah Arendt is a smart and engaging postscript to the greatest tragedy in the history of mankind. It's one of those stories that learned historians might know but the average film fan might not. Now I do, and I'm better off for having seen it.
Not guilty. Adolf Eichmann, on the other hand…
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Zeitgeist Films
• Deleted Scenes
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