News Column

'Hannah Arendt': a ferocious portrayal of a blazing intellect

July 20, 2013


July 20--Margarethe von Trotta's "Hannah Arendt" begins with that rarity in cinema: a long, quiet shot of somebody thinking. And you can see it, on Barbara Sukowa's face; with every drag on her ever-present cigarette and every faint frown descending from her brows, this woman is processing an idea, meticulously and creatively. Sukowa, a frequent collaborator with von Trotta, plays the real-life title character (1906-1975): a writer, philosopher, political theorist and German-born Jew who fled Europe for the U.S. in 1941.

Though Arendt's eventful life could have made a remarkable epic movie, "Hannah Arendt" focuses primarily on a few years and one pivotal event: her coverage, for The New Yorker magazine, of the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann, a high-ranking Nazi during World War II. We watch her, ringed in cigarette smoke, staring transfixed at Eichmann (who we see in newsreel footage from the time). He's a nobody, she says -- a "terrifyingly normal" bureaucrat and a mediocrity, not a monster. From her controversial writings on the trial came the now-famous phrase "the banality of evil," and Arendt was widely criticized for seeming not to condemn Eichmann strongly enough. "Trying to understand," she says late in the film, during a gripping lecture, "is not the same as forgiveness."

The film doesn't always live up to the ferocity of Sukowa's performance; some of the scenes involving Arendt's New York writer crowd, in particular, seem arch and overwritten. (That crowd included Arendt's close friend, Seattle-born writer Mary McCarthy, played vividly by Janet McTeer.) But ultimately this is a thoughtful portrait of a unique woman, whose blazing, uncompromising intelligence seems to light up the screen. At one point, an editor tries to dissuade her from using foreign phrases in her writing, reminding her that "most of our readers don't understand Greek." Arendt doesn't pause for a moment, crisply retorting, "They should learn."

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or


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