Audrey Kupferberg: Hannah Arendt

Nov 15, 2013

When German director Margarethe von Trotta makes a film, I rush to see it.  Her previous works include powerful portrayals of strong-minded women who come up against the Establishment and boldly act to change society as they see it.  She is a fine director, writer, and actress whose films go back to New German Cinema.

Von Trotta’s most recent film HANNAH ARENDT releases on DVD and Blu-Ray this month.  I want to love this film and highly recommend it to those viewers who enjoy taking on a deeply thought out, intellectual film.  But I cannot do so without hesitation.  This film is not well thought out when it comes to communicating with its audience, and some of its viewership will be lost as they attempt to navigate a universe which is not well mapped.

The plot centers on real-life writer-professor-philosopher Hannah Arendt, specifically as she witnesses the live testimony of Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann— remembered by many as the man in the glass booth—and then writes a highly controversial interpretive account of the historic trial for The New Yorker.

If a viewer is to be engaged with a film, he or she has to be grounded in the world of that film.  Here primarily is where HANNAH ARENDT disappoints.   I understand that von Trotta and co- screenwriter Pam Katz began with a broad biographical approach and then pared it down to this time in Arendt’s life.  Maybe they chopped away too much of the story. This screenplay lacks so much detail regarding where certain scenes take place, when the story takes place, and who the real-life characters are and their importance in history.

Furthermore, the details of Hannah Arendt’s controversial writings are whittled down to a very general statement.  There are no details to prove to the viewer that Arendt even could back up her broad-based argument.  And what she wrote—she criticized Jewish leadership during the Holocaust, implying that their conduct caused more murders—was so disturbing in the early 1960s that she—a German Jew who survived the Holocaust—was accused of anti-Semitism and received hate mail and death threats.

Was von Trotta thinking that the details of Arendt’s life and writings do not impact upon the viewer’s acceptance of the story, that a general look at Arendt and her friends and her work would suffice?  Or did she believe we already know enough about Hannah Arendt to make this film clear?

Whatever the reasons, the film HANNAH ARENDT still is worth looking at.  The acting style of Barbara Sukowa in the title role is contemplative and very effective.  So… after the film ends, go to your book shelves or to Google books to look up what Arendt actually wrote.  Don’t pass this film by.  Well intentioned, intellectual films are hard to come by these days, and Hannah Arendt—a significant philosopher of the 20th Century—is deserving of attention.  Take it for what it offers, then do your own research.

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She teaches film studies at the University at Albany and has co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

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