The writer-philosopher Hannah Arendt, who pounced on the opportunity to cover the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann, resulting in her controversial pronouncement about the disparity between “the mediocrity of the man” and “the horror of the deeds,” is brought to life by a mesmerizing Barbara Sukowa in a new film by Margarethe von Trotta.
Despite all of its scenes about ideas thrashed out at cocktail parties and in the office of New Yorker editor William Shawn (a droll Nicolas Woodson), and barnburner lectures at the New School, where Arendt taught, Hannah Arendt mostly forestalls any complaints of talkiness, and it avoids the static portrayal of writers at work. (There is still too much smoking-while-thinking.) Squaring your own past with reporting duties is a theme — Arendt, a Jew, was a deten-tion-camp survivor — and ur-woman’s director von Trotta, in a thirty-year creative partnership with Sukowa, adds smart, grown-up girl talk about men, marriage and careers with Arendt’s loyal friend, Mary McCarthy (a zingy Janet McTeer). Good, because Arendt meets painful opposition from other lifelong colleagues when she declares Eichmann to be merely obedient, incapable of envisioning the next horrendous step in his bureaucratic duties constructing the Holocaust.
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Historical footage of the twitchy Eichmann in his protective glass cage echoes the film’s dark reenactment of his kidnapping from Argentina, mirrored later as Israeli secret forces track down Arendt on an early-morning walk, trying to strong-arm her into suppressing Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. It’s the one time that the courageous Arendt, here more quicksilver than arrogant (as she is reported to have occasionally been), looks scared.
June 21-27, 2013