There are so many films set during World War Two, focusing on the devastation and inhumanity of The Holocaust, but rarely do we see a retrospective of the time, exploring the aftermath and the emotional impact the war had on those unfortunate enough to be caught up in it. However this is exactly the premise to Margarethe von Trotta’s unique biopic of Hannah Arendt, the renowned German scholar who coined the phrase, ‘the banality of evil’. Fortunately, banality is not an appropriate word to be associated with this poignant drama.
Hannah Arendt (Barbara Sukowa) is a philosopher and political theorist, who managed to escape to America during the war, and has found a life for herself in the States, lecturing and writing to make a living. When she hears of a trial taking place in Israel for that of the Nazi Adolf Eichmann – one of the key organisers of The Holocaust – for his various war crimes, she manages to get a commission from The New Yorker to cover the case. However her opinions on the matter cause some uproar, as it seems her take on the evil incidents that occurred is somewhat conflicting to that of those around her.
The premise is simply fascinating in this title, as we watch on as our protagonist explores immorality and what it is that can make people capable of acting in such a barbaric way, taking a strong philosophical look into a subject that will forever trouble and intrigue people. Arendt’s argument is a compelling one also, and whether you agree with her theory or not, seeing someone articulate their own, well-crafted opinion with such conviction and intelligence means you hang on her every word, and it’s a credit to Sukowa’s performance and the screenplay that this be the case.
Arendt could be perceived as being unsympathetic to the victims of The Holocaust, as she feels the perpetrator’s motives were merely banal and not fuelled by anti-Semitism, and that Eichmann was in fact a bureaucrat following orders. She criticises Jewish leaders during what is a highly emotional case – proving herself to be a pragmatic, political thinker, not a sentimentalist. Her theory provokes much animosity from her own people, as she’s accused of blaming Jews for their own destruction, as if they were accomplices to the crimes. However as she defiantly denies and explains her theories, it makes for a riveting watch.
One of that factors that truly make this title so upsetting at times, is the implementation of real footage from the Eichmann trial itself, which is harrowing and extremely difficult to watch. To see the man himself brings a chilling realism to proceedings, while seeing real life victims break down in court when testifying is devastating. It’s a great decision for von Trotta to take this approach rather than dramatising the trial herself, as the real footage sequences are the most memorable of all. The filmmaker must also be commended for the seamless cutting between the archive footage and acting performances, as the picture maintains a consistent flow to it. Meanwhile, Sukowa is inspiring as our lead, despite being dealt with one hell of a screenplay. She has such a sternness to her demeanour and an authority that is required for the role at hand – and yet she has a warmness about her as well, conflicting against those who accuse her of being cold-hearted.
Though growing considerably tedious in parts, and lagging somewhat in the middle stages, Hannah Arendt picks up once again for what is an immensely engaging climax. If this had been a Hollywood movie, with a more famous cast list, it would be real Oscar bait. Alas, you’ll have to dig around to find a cinema showing this near you. But be sure to dig – because this is a worthy piece of cinema.