New Indie Thursday: Hannah Arendt

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I have a weak spot in my life for biographical films of intellectuals, especially ones that I do not know much about. Hannah Arendt was a famous philosopher who escaped Nazi Germany and immigrated to America. She began publishing controversial books about the banality of evil and teaching philosophy at several great schools here in America. By the time this movie takes place, she has firmly established her place in the philosophical world. I must confess I really responded to the ideas presented in this movie and the life of Hannah Arendt in particular.

Arendt was a Jewish woman. In the early sixties, she applied to the New Yorker to write a series of articles about a high Nazi official recently captured and brought to Israel to stand trial. She wanted to see the trial for herself and peer into the face of unquestioned evil. At this time, Israel was a vibrant haven for Jewish people and many people of this heritage immigrated here to be apart of their own culture. It was also a fiercely protected country and one that struggles even to this day to maintain legitimacy. Arendt travels to Israel and discovers something that solidifies her philosophical work. She finds that men are able to turn off their brains and not think when given the proper motivation. So evil people aren’t necessarily evil completely. A man who has committed horrific crimes can justify it to himself by saying he was just following orders. Meanwhile she puts the blame for the widespread massacre that was the Holocaust on the Jewish political figures that cooperates with the Nazis. (at least that was how it was interrupted) Thus this book was seen in the national consciousness as being anti-Jew and pro-Nazi. Of course her philosophy was much more complex and nuanced than that and she never once says that she blames the Jews, just the Jewish leaders who were short sided in their actions. After the publication of her articles in the New Yorker and then in book form, she becomes the scourge of the intellectual community. She nearly looses her teaching position, she looses a lot of lifetime friends and her research is constantly being questioned by the popular newspapers and magazines. But she never backs down. She never gives up her quest for truth, even if it is brutal and harsh.

The director of this film, Margarethe von Trotta, is known more for her acting abilities than her movies. She was Fassbinder’s muse in his early career as well as a vibrant character actress in the late seventies and early eighties art world. After she left behind her acting career, she began to direct movies that featured strong female characters. She is able to capture the vivaciousness and astute intellectualism of not just Hannah Arendt, but also Hildegard von Bingen (I reviewed Vision, about von Bingen, about a year ago) in a way that a male director might not be able to capture. She works closely with her own muse, Barbara Sukowa, to create multi-dimensional and strong-willed characters that give these real life figures their infinite appeal. While she eschews making a visual statement with cinematography, she makes an emotional statement by giving us motives that are written all of over their characters’ faces. Hannah Arendt is a better film than most film critics give it credit for. It is able to capture a particularly weird time in Jewish history while also never undermining the intellectual ideas brought up in this time. Therefore we as an audience understand why these people might be upset at her while at the same time we understand exactly how she came up with the ideas and her uncompromising nature that brought her to write about them. Arendt was an influential philosopher, but she was also a person and a woman who could stand up on her own two feet and defend her ideas. This is what von Trotta and Sukowa capture the best.

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