“Hannah Arendt,” a film by German director Margarethe von Trotta, portrays one of the greatest and most controversial political theorists of the 21st century in biopic format. Von Trott, while maintaining a commitment to the medium, paints a fascinating picture of a historical moment of international justice (the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem) as experienced by a provocative German-Jewish intellect (Arendt) living in the shadow of the Shoah. Barbara Sukowa, who takes on the leading role, provides a stunning portrait of Arendt as she travels to Jerusalem to cover the trial of former Nazi Adolf Eichmann.
While von Trotta is dedicated to tracing Arendt’s personal life and intellectual development (not to mention including undercurrents of second wave feminism, although Arendt was certainly not a feminist), the overwhelming thrust of the film is in the representation of Arendt as a critical survivor; she views Eichmann, the guilty on trial in Jerusalem, through the eyes of a theorist, a theorist dedicated to explaining the societal, political, and cultural aspects which construct and manipulate the thinking and agency of the individual.
The film centers on the birth of Arendt’s thesis, the “banality of evil,” which subsequently was included in her report in the New Yorker, and later developed and extended in her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem. Arendt watches Eichmann on trial as he provides his “Nuremberg defense,” pleading that he was following orders and deferring to leadership. He argues that to not obey was to be a traitor to Germany and the Reich. Notably, von Trotta uses actual footage of Eichmann on trial which creates a very visceral experience as the audience observes the real Eichmann standing before Sukowa’s Arendt.
As Arendt watches the trial, she concludes that Eichmann, rather than suffering from any particular character flaw, acted like any human would under the pressures of the regime, the ideology of the Final Solution, and, importantly, his conviction that his actions were just. The crimes for which he faced trial were not the products of an inherent evil on the individual level.
Arendt’s conclusion, which in some ways accused the Jewish people of being compliant, was refuted across the world and even within her close intellectual community at the New School. Arendt challenged Nuremberg’s ability to provide true justice and theorized a new way of thinking about the power of regimes and the role of society (as a whole) in such atrocities. Her thesis added new complexities to debates of truth, justice, guilt, and conviction.
In these paragraphs, I have attempted to provide a brief summary of the film, but admittedly I could not account for all the intricacies of von Trotta’s cinematic work. I recommend watching the film if you have time or at least examining some of the more interesting commentaries such as this one in Black Wall/Dark Room by David Grossman or this New York Times article by Roger Berkowitz (which focuses more on Arendt’s actual philosophy).