The Audacity of Thought: Film Director Margarethe von Trotta Examines the Life of a Passionate Intellectual in Hannah Arendt

Thinking and smoking. Smoking and thinking. Thinking, smoking, and pacing the floor of her apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side. This is how we see the gifted academic and profound socio-political philosopher, Hannah Arendt, prepare to write. Who knew depictions of thinking could be so cinematic? In the hands of director Margarethe von Trotta, these gestures fill the frames that compose some of the most fascinating scenes in her biopic about four years in the often stormy life of a German-Jewish émigré played with formidable, yet understated agility by Barbara Sukowa. [How could von Trotta not re-cast the radiant actress, who delivered such a wondrous performance in her last film Vision (2010) about the extraordinary life of a medieval nun, Hildegard von Bingen, who authored numerous literary and scientific texts and composed more than 60 musical works while cloistered in a Benedictine abbey?]

2013-06-02-hannaharendtPoster.jpg The film's poster is a portrait of thinking.
Image courtesy of Zeitgeist Films.

Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) was born in Germany to secular, assimilated Jewish parents. Her intellectual journey took her to the Universities of Heidelberg and Marburg, where she studied with Karl Jaspers, Edmund Husserl, and Martin Heidegger, three of Europe's most influential, early 20th-century philosophers. She remained life-long friends with Jaspers, but had a complicated, conflicted relationship with Heidegger owing to their brief, but intense love affair when she was 19, and his flabbergasting decision to join Germany's National Socialist Party in 1933. Although she would describe him as "a murderer" to Jaspers--according to her niece, Edna Brocke--she always kept Heidegger's letters in her bedside drawer.

That same year, Arendt fled Germany after detention by the Gestapo and escaped to Paris only to be sent to Camp Gurs (which by 1940, the Vichy government had turned into an internment camp for Jews of all nationalities except French). By this time she had met and married her second husband, Heinrich Blücher (played by Axel Milberg who creates a wonderful onscreen chemistry and convincing relationship with Sukowa), a German, working-class, self-educated Gentile, who would later teach philosophy at Bard College. Arendt, with her mother and Blücher, escaped again and landed in America, making New York City home for the rest of her life.

Arendt eventually taught at Princeton, Harvard, the University of Chicago, and New School for Social Research, and published seminal, socio-political texts, eg, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) and The Human Condition (1958). She became part of New York City's intellectual and literary circles, where she met, among others, the prickly, bombastic novelist, critic, and political activist Mary McCarthy (played broadly and to great comic effect by Janet McTeer). From lively debates while dining outdoors in Jerusalem to hosting salons in her living room on Riverside Drive, the film also depicts a woman, who is a passionate, loyal wife and lover and fiercely devoted friend, who surrounds herself with people she loves, some of whom agree with her and others who vehemently disagree.

Focusing mostly on the four years that begin with her coverage of the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem for The New Yorker, we find Arendt chain-smoking in a pressroom as she observes the former lieutenant colonel sans Nazi uniform simulcast on TV screens (actual, archival footage is used, so we see him exactly as she did). She decides the diminutive, nerdy-looking Eichmann is "a nobody," a barely literate bureaucrat, incapable of thinking for himself, never questioning authority. She explains this phenomenon as the "banality of evil," which emerges in totalitarian regimes, where the goal is to subordinate the individual to serve and obey.

This concept was misinterpreted, especially by fervent Zionists and traumatized concentration camp survivors. Not surprisingly, they found Arendt's scholarship emotionally tone-deaf and, worse still, an attempt to justify Eichmann's transportation of millions of Jews to death camps. Moreover, she cited her belief that cooperation by Jewish Council leaders also contributed to Jews being sent to camps. After her articles appeared in the The New Yorker and were published as a book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963), Arendt received brutal attacks in the press, a barrage of hate mail, and death threats.

Perhaps the most devastating consequences of her thoughts on Eichmann were a note from a neighbor in her building hand-delivered by her doorman calling her, "a Nazi whore" and the rejection by two beloved friends, the Zionists Hans Jonas and Kurt Blumenfeld, who accused her of naivety and betraying the Jewish people.

It took near dismissal from the New School for Arendt to defend herself publicly (it should be noted that previously with the help of her assistant, she answered many, often ugly, letters from individuals, whom she felt she had hurt). Sukowa delivers a superb performance, which is especially riveting in the film's finale.

Hannah Arendt may not be a perfect film, but it certainly is stimulating and inspiring. It made me pull books off the shelf like Herbert Marcuse's Reason and Revolution, Jurgen Habermas's Knowledge and Human Interests and Kurt H. Wolff's Surrender and Catch (bought a very long time ago when I was fascinated by critical theory, the Frankfurt School, and the sociology of knowledge). Also, the events depicted in the film, which occurred 50 years ago, feel uncannily contemporary and relevant and--whether intended or not--serve as a metaphor to better understand our confusing post-9/11 world, which also suggests that history repeats itself.

Like Arendt, Jewish-American intellectual, Susan Sontag, was subject to death threats after she wrote an essay (ironically also appearing in The New Yorker, September 24, 2001 ), attempting to provide a broader context to reflect on the devastation of 9/11. She accused government officials and the mass media of "infantilizing" the public and declared that the men who flew into the World Trade Center were "not cowards," (a similar statement was made by Bill Maher on ABC's "Politically Incorrect," which immediately lost two major sponsors and was eventually cancelled).

One can't help but wonder what Hannah Arendt might have thought and written about drones, the NRA, Guantanamo Bay, and Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad. How she might conceptualize our constipated U.S. Congress, influenced by powerful lobbies and motivated by visions of re-election, is delightful to contemplate.

As a woman who did not adhere to any particular ideology, was skeptical of all "isms," and agnostic, the absence of group affiliations left her free to think independently, guided only by two principles "to understand" and uphold amor mundi or "love of the world," which today seems much more audacious than mere hope.

Hannah Arendt (2012) was co-written by Pamela Katz and director Margarethe von Trotta. It opened in New York City at the Film Forum on May 29, 2013 and will debut in Los Angeles on June 7, 2013. The film will also play in other cities, such as Washington, DC, Minneapolis, and Seattle for very limited engagements. Check the Zeitgeist Films website, for a complete list of cities and dates.