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Film Review: 'Hannah Arendt' Discovers In Nazi Trial The Banality Of Evil

Courtesy of Heimatfilm

Political writer Hannah Arendt was born in 1906 into a family of German Jews, perhaps narrow justification for why the editors of The New Yorker deemed her the perfect candidate to cover the 1961 trial of Hitler henchman Adolf Eichmann. 

Director Margarethe von Trotta's intellectually dense and stimulating film Hannah Arendt astutely covers the writer's status among New York intelligentsia of the time, the trial itself (with grainy footage of the real proceedings, with Eichmann ensconced in a glass box like a lizard in a terrarium), and the aftermath of the series of articles that ultimately made Arendt both famous and a pariah.

Arendt is played by esteemed German actress Barbara Sukowa, who collaborated with von Trotta on Vision and was a frequent muse of the late German bad boy filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Sukowa's performance is thoughtful and uncompromising, a moving portrait of an ardent writer whose love of her own prose may have blinded her to an incriminating tone many decried as anti-Semitic.

The trial revealed that one of his jobs for the Third Reich was overseeing the transportation of Jews to various camps. Though Arendt never questions the horrific, dehumanizing nature of his tasks, she does propose that Eichmann was merely a shapeless cog in a bureaucratic machine - a homely man whose bland demeanor and unquestioning obedience didn't make him a monster but rather an ordinary representation of "the banality of evil."

But Arendt also posited that some Jewish leaders - in particular,Chaim Rumkowski, who was nominated by the Nazis to serve on a Council of Elders in the Lodz ghetto - didn't do enough to save Jews. In her eyes (and words), he was a Nazi collaborator. Given that he and his family died in Auschwitz, her charges were unfathomable and difficult to take seriously or forgive.

Sukowa captures Arendt's reaction to others' reactions to her with the sharp steeliness of a scalpel; the actress didn't take this role to be liked. And she's supported by a strong multi-national supporting cast, including the always indelible Janet McTeer as Arendt's friend Mary McCarthy, another writer who didn't care whether or not the public embraced her.

Hannah Arendt| Dir. Margarethe von Trotta | 113 minutes | Playing at Tivoli Cinemas


Up To Date Arts & CultureFilm
Since 1998, Steve Walker has contributed stories and interviews about theater, visual arts, and music as an arts reporter at KCUR. He's also one of Up to Date's regular trio of critics who discuss the latest in art, independent and documentary films playing on area screens.