In Hannah Arendt (von Trotta, 2012) Barbara Sukowa gives us a character that we (sadly) rarely see on film, an intelligent, confident, interesting and attractive older woman. She’s an incredibly complex character, confident but vulnerable, cheeky but authoritative. Director Margarethe von Trotta clearly recognises the power of this character and the quality of Sukowa’s performance and wisely uses it to carry the film; holding the camera on Sukowa and trusting her nuanced performance to tell the story, instead of cutting to flashbacks or other narrative devices.
Von Trotta’s stance as a humanist runs deep throughout the film. All of the characters, no matter how minor, are interesting and well-rounded. Janet McTeer’s excels as Hannah’s friend Mary; their scene playing pool was a high point, because it’s so very different to any other scene involving two women of that age that I’ve seen in cinema in a long time.
Von Trotta is often proclaimed as a feminist filmmaker . But I didn’t see any striking feminism in this film, other than the fact that it treats its female characters as being as important as the males. Perhaps this has been interpreted as feminism, because it’s still lamentably rare?
The portrayal of Hannah’s relationship with her husband is a particular joy to watch. The ambiguity of their disagreements and his eye for other women, contrasted with their obvious happiness and adoration of one another is yet another example of the complexity of the characters developed by von Trotta.
On first watching Hannah Arendt, I was unsure about the inclusion of the documentary footage of the Eichmann trial, but ultimately it was effective in immersing the audience in Hannah’s experience. Initially it was jarring, in the way that seeing him step into the courtroom must have been, for so many of the waiting Jews. Then, playing it on the TV screen as Hannah watched, I found it added to the film instead of distracting from it by giving Sukowa something to wordlessly play against.
Despite the strength of Sukowa’s performance and von Trotta’s storytelling, the most fascinating aspect of the film remains its theme. I completely agree with Arendt’s philosophy that we must seek to understand why people do the abhorrent things that they do, and that understanding does not equate to forgiveness. And I took one of the film’s themes to be the importance of understanding the past, so that we don’t continue to repeat its mistakes. This is particularly well portrayed through the hysterical reaction to Arendt’s book. Those who condemned it, without even reading it, demonstrated exactly the same herd mentality that leads people to unquestioningly accept the commands of others; exactly the defence which Eichmann used for his actions as part of the Nazi regime.
Linked to this, I appreciated von Trotta’s portrayal of Jews as a diverse and sometimes divisive group. When history is written, it’s written by the victors and the oppressors. We often paint the victims of this oppression as a passive group to whom history happened, forgetting that they also had a part in making it. In simplifying their role in their own story, we stereotype them as one singular group; often casting them as weak and vulnerable, but united against their oppressors. Von Trotta has no time for this character complacency. Instead she highlights their differences and pushes them into conflict. In doing so she forces the audience to question our own assumptions about how we expect these characters to behave.
Ultimately, I found Hannah Arendt (both as a film and as a person) intensely interesting and confounding. It asks many, many questions, but leaves us to confront our preconceptions, assumptions and prejudices to find the answers.
Von Trotta, M., (2012) Hannah Arendt, Heimatfilm