Hannah Arendt Review

Margarethe von Trotta's warmly intellectual biopic Hannah Arendt takes a key sequence in its subject's life and shades in finer details as it goes. The result is a fully realized portrait of a woman who was both influential and controversial in her ideas. Played by Barbara Sukowa, the film's titular figure is a New York-based, German-Jewish professor tapped by The New Yorker to cover the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Israel. It's 1961 and the Nazi war criminal is shown in archival black and white footage, staunchly denying his guilt as he sits in an elevated glass cage during the hearing. Von Trotta also uses historical film clips to show the line of accusers who take the stand to testify against Eichmann. The level of drama this injects can hardly be overstated, as both the stylistic change and the content shown make for something perversely riveting. It immediately becomes an equalizer in tone and setting.

Even prior to Arendt's visit to Israel her circle of friends in New York, including the writer Mary McCarthy (played by Janet McTeer), seemed to hold varying opinions on Eichmann and whether Arendt, a concentration camp survivor, should get involved in the ordeal. The exact reasons for her commitment seem left unsaid in the film but one could reasonably infer that she had both a curiosity and may have felt some sort of philosophical obligation to observe and report. It's the latter which seems to guide the picture forward, into a thoroughly engrossing conversation built around Arendt's concept of the "banality of evil" in regards to Eichmann. Her view of him as someone ordinary and mediocre rather than a calculating, malevolent architect of the Holocaust inspired widespread anger. The point, as she expressed in The New Yorker and the book that followed, was that Eichmann dedicated himself to Hitler's cause in and of itself, not to any specific anti-Semitic beliefs.

The specifics are worth considering both inside von Trotta's film, to an extent, and via Arendt's writings, but aren't necessary for the purposes of this review. Whatever the actual merit of Hannah Arendt's views (and it would seem that time has certainly been kinder and more open to them than the contemporary reaction we see in the movie), it's the portrayal by Sukowa and von Trotta which matters in the dramatic sense. This is certainly a supportive approach being taken but it still remains untethered and open for the viewer to take away his or her own feeling. The narrative gives Arendt a constant, searching intellectual ferocity which ultimately develops into confidence amid resistance. She refuses to apologize for her views or her writing. Even as friends and colleagues abandon her, both owing to her take on Eichmann and her perceived blaming of the Jews, Arendt remains steadfast.

There's one particularly strong scene when Hannah finally meets with New Yorker editor William Shawn after having finished her writing. Pressured by others, he brings up the passage where Jewish leaders are cited as sharing some blame for the atrocities which would unfold. Arendt had stated that this wasn't a viewpoint being expressed but instead a reflection of something brought up in Eichmann's trial. Shawn reads something aloud and as he does it's easy to, as he seems to, take the words as Arendt's opinion on the matter. Hannah immediately rebukes him, calling them facts. Going back over the passage exactly in one's head, the realization hits that she's right, that it's worded so skillfully as to plant the seed without overtly editorializing. From that point forward, it becomes increasingly difficult to doubt her.

Ideas rule the day in Hannah Arendt and the result feels ever so refreshing. If the film initially comes across as a creaky excuse for faux intellectual, upper crust chatter, don't be discouraged. It broadens as it goes. The intentions gradually reveal themselves more and more, and the biopic angle lessens. We still get a nicely rounded impression of Arendt, complete with flashbacks to her time as a student with Martin Heidegger. The intellectual pursuit and commitment to being rather protective of individual ideas resonates. So while Hannah Arendt champions its protagonist's choices, it also makes sure to be a completely involving experience, aided by von Trotta and the perfectly balanced effort from Sukowa. Never stuffy or dry, the film is a shining example of how to turn biography into compelling entertainment.

The Disc

I believe this may be the first time U.S. distributor Zeitgeist Films has put out a release simultaneously on DVD and Blu-ray. There are a couple of catalog titles available on BD but this is the initial offering of a film in both formats upon release. Being reviewed here is the region-free Blu-ray, which is single-layered.

The 1080p image preserves the theatrical 2.40:1 aspect ratio. The result is a solid effort full of staid-looking interiors. We see little opportunity for brighter colors but detail and sharpness come through well enough to make the viewing experience seem at least faithful to the filmmakers' intentions. So without calling attention to itself, the picture certainly looks pleasing and a likely improvement on standard definition.

Audio is a consistent mixture of German and English, with the default track being a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix. A two-channel English dub is also available. The main audio track is heavy on dialogue and, as such, performs cleanly. No issues with understanding even the accented speech, and volume remains at a consistent clip throughout the movie. English subtitles are necessary, though optional, for much of the movie. The hearing impaired can also utilize a separate English language subtitles track.

Extra features on the disc include a half-hour making-of piece and about five minutes' worth of deleted scenes, plus the U.S. theatrical trailer. All of these are in HD. There's also a very nice twenty-page booklet inside the case which has a couple of essays plus a timeline of the events in Hannah Arendt's life.

Strangely enough Zeitgeist put together a special feature (a Q&A featuring von Trotta, Sukowa and others) only available on the DVD edition. This doesn't seem like the greatest of ideas, even if it comes down to a matter of it perhaps only existing in standard definition.

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