Two days ago, I read Richard Brody’s review on Margarethe von Trotta‘s latest film on German-Jewish political theorist and philosopher Hannah Arendt. The review was published in The New Yorker, and was entitled ‘Hannah Arendt’ and the Glorification of Thinking.
I am not an expert on Hannah Arendt, nor am I a renowned film critic. However, I am roughly familiar with Arendt’s life and her controversial publications. And, I watched the movie a few weeks ago which I found to be both important and impressive. I differ with Brody’s harsh criticism of von Trotta’s film, and – frankly – had not at all the impression of being faced with shallow hagiography. Among a whole list of things he takes issue with, Brody is particularly upset about the director’s artistic decision to include actual footage of Adolf Eichmann’s trial, and accuses her of “simultaneously trivializing it and diminishing the rest of the movie to the vanishing point.”
What the director has to say
If you are interested in what Margarethe von Trotta has to say about her latest work, including the importance of making use of the original trial footage, I highly recommend watching ‘Turning thoughts into Images’, an episode dedicated to “Hannah Arendt” within the series Goethe Directors Talk . Regarding the footage issue von Trotta says: “We did not choose an actor [for that scene] because […] he couldn’t be as mediocre as Eichmann himself.” By providing an opportunity to observe the real Eichmann in front of the court, with his many tics and insecurities, the audience is enabled to experience the exact subject matter that Arendt did, and therefore better understand her thought process and the development of her theory on Eichmann and the “banality of evil”.
The film culminates in an eight-minute speech of Arendt, encapsulating “her whole philosophy of that moment”, a decision von Trotta takes pride in: this was something that “hasn’t been done before in film” as directors “fear that people won’t follow and will be bored.” She adds, “but with Barbara [Sukowa] you are not bored; she is fantastic…and she is fantastic because she thought it through, from the beginning. So you will see her thinking while she is speaking. It is not only an actor’s performance – it really is a thinking performance.” And, if I might add, it is also an emotional performance by Sukowa, who manages to subtly make the audience understand what emotional pressures Arendt must have lived through by expressing her controversial beliefs.
As for Brody, one commentator on his review remarked that his inflated hostility towards the film maker and the film seems to be predominantely founded in his disagreement with Hannah Arendt’s ideas themselves. This is, indeed, how it comes across.
What I take away from the film, apart from good entertainment and a close look at a brilliant female 20th century thinker is the following:
Using one’s brain in life is of extreme importance. It’s not about the glorification of thinking in the sense of some sort of mental masturbation, but the need for human beings to contextualize their actions, to think about the ramifications of these actions, and, thereby, be conscious of one’s responsibilities as an individual. It’s about always keeping the BIG PICTURE in mind and one’s own role in creating this picture. Otherwise we all run the risk of potentially becoming little Eichmanns.
- A.O. Scott (May 28, 2013). “How It Looks to Think: Watch Her, ‘Hannah Arendt,’ With Barbara Sukowa and Janet McTeer”. New York Times (US).
- David Mertz’s A Philosophy Ph.D Reviews ‘Hannah Arendt’
- Hannah Arendt, Guilty Pleasure (3quarksdaily.com)
- Hannah Arendt (myoldaddiction2.wordpress.com)
- “Hannah Arendt” and the Glorification of Thinking (newyorker.com)
- Lonely Thinking: Hannah Arendt on Film (theparisreview.org)