A reminder of the New School philosophy professor Hannah Arendt, and the controversy she provoked when she published her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, might not be such a bad thing in an era in which so many feel so compelled to simplify societies’ most galling atrocities. Just as it’s more inviting to believe that various terrorist factions around the world are inhuman creatures concerned only with gobbling up America’s precious freedom, it’s also more comfortable to deny the architects and executioners of the Holocaust their humanity, as that distances everyone else from their own potential capacity for cruelty.
Hannah Arendt’s most striking quality, and it’s not insignificant, is director Margarethe von Trotta’s refusal to fossilize the controversies she dramatizes; her film isn’t a civics lesson that invites us to regard the characters with safe, nauseating superiority, encouraging us by implication to congratulate ourselves for our evolution beyond the concerns addressed. The film honors the daring of Arendt’s (Barbara Sukowa) work, which most disturbingly examines how a government can render outrageously cruel and disgusting acts palpable through insidious measures of bureaucratic dehumanization, without cheapening her claims as an obvious retrospective conclusion.
The film is refreshingly dry and crisp, and it’s as pragmatic as its hero. We’re allowed to see in an unusual amount of detail the extended process of a writer debating and revising her thoughts with remarkably little flashy plotting or melodramatics. Von Trotta sympathizes with Arendt’s devotion to fact and observation, in place of explicit and obvious sympathy, as necessary to plumbing subjects that are often and understandably clouded in tragic, emotional baggage. The pointed lack of emotion in Arendt’s writing, which her detractors cited as evidence of her snobbishness as well as her hatred for Jews, was probably an expression of empathy (Arendt and her husband escaped an internment camp), a refusal to condescend to the victims of the Holocaust with rote sentimentality.
But von Trotta does indulge some misleading sentimentality of her own by staging events in such a way as to compromise the validity of Arendt’s detractors wholesale (they’re presented here as prudes straight out of a formulaic censorship fable). There are rational reasons to object to Arendt’s assertions, such as her ludicrous claim that Adolf Eichmann was completely unable to comprehend the human cost of his actions, which traffic in generalities for the sake of establishing the grander, and valid, philosophy regarding, well, “the banality of evil.” Hannah Arendt is assured and compelling, and it’s gratifying to see a film that actively courts the mind rather than the heart, but the deck’s stacked. Von Trotta, like Arendt herself, is too confident of her own conclusions.