Monday, May 27, 2013

Thinking and writing about evil, guilt and the Holocaust: Margarethe von Trotta's off-and-on stunning HANNAH ARENDT

Watching HANNAH ARENDT, the new film from Margarethe von Trotta, took me immediately back 50 years to when I was a naive and hugely untutored 22-year-old young man from Los Angeles, fresh out of drama school here in New York City, and working at what was then called Philharmonic Hall in the newly created culture zone known as Lincoln Center. Co-workers were talking about the publication in The New Yorker of a series of articles by a woman named Hannah Arendt about the Adolf Eichmann trial in Israel, the Holocaust, evil and responsibility -- among a number of other things. I read the articles but didn't really understand them or what Ms Arendt was getting at, for at that time I had little sense of history and read things in such a cursory manner that, while I got the gist, I didn't delve. Regarding Eichmann and the Holocaust, I knew what had happened but I not lived or experienced enough or thought deeply about any of this to have processed it to the point of understanding its enormous importance.

Ms von Trotta's movie (the filmmaker is shown at right) is devoted almost entirely to the time just preceding the trial, the trial itself, and the ramifications that followed the publication of Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. (The several short scenes that take place in the past and deal with Hannah's time as a student and her involvement with the famous Nazi-leaning philosopher Martin Heidegger, in fact, are the least worthwhile in the film and could easily have been excised. They tell us little that we don't already know or have not heard from other characters, and they arrive in rather flat-footed fashion.) According to the Hannah we see here, brought to wonderfully rich life by the German actress Barbara Sukowa (below), this was a woman who spoke (and wrote) her mind, parsing her words carefully but refusing to change them to please the powers that be (in this case, the Zionist Jewish lobby).

What Arnendt (who was herself Jewish) says will not, I think, be so shocking now as it seemed to many back in the 1960s, when Jews-as-victims was the only game in town. In the half-century since her articles and book appeared (the movie is a kind of celebration of the work and its publication), there has been much discussion of all of this, leading to a realization of the various levels of guilt and responsibility of the Nazi leaders, the underlings who were "just following orders," the German populace at large, and all the countries throughout Europe and the world where Nazi influence and power took hold.

Along the way, Arendt notes that the complicity of Jewish leaders with the Nazis (obviously done to achieve extra time and perhaps even possible help down the line) actually led to more deaths. Were the Jews not so well organized and in thrall to their leaders, more might have survived. These were fighting words, and perhaps still are to some, but they make pretty good sense to me and are simply realistic rather than anti-Jewish. (At the time some of Arendt compatriots called her a self-hating Jew -- a term still thrown at anyone who dares to stray from the party line: These days it's Norman Finkelstein who is often given this appellation.)

Ms von Trotta, who both directed and co-wrote the screenplay with Pamela Katz, interestingly combines her narrative (in color) with black-and-white documentary footage of Eichmann and his trial. This works quite well. The filmmaker captures the period look extremely well, and from the outset she also tosses us into the middle of things (above), with little to no identification of the friends and colleagues in Arendt's life, so we simply must listen and hope to learn as we go along. The wondrous Janet McTeer (below, and further below, right) plays Hannah's good friend who is there from the beginning, complaining of man trouble and later standing up to Arendt's worst hecklers. It was only post-viewing, when I read the film's press materials that I realized McTeer was playing (and quite well) Mary McCarthy.

There is also good work from Julia Jentsch as Hannah's assistant; Axel Milberg as Heinrich Blücher, her second husband; and Nicolas Woodeson especially on-the-mark as William Shawn, among several other good supporting performances. What the movie captures best is the life and times, mind and thoughts of this fascinating woman. And if Ms Sukowa is far too beautiful to portray Hannah, she gets most else quite right, never more so than in the brilliant speech to her students at the height of the brouhaha, when the most powerful Jews want her to resign, recant, and, for god's sake, stop teaching (we don't want to infect our students with actual questioning and thinking, after all).

This speech provides the finale to the film and it alone is worth the price of admission. You'll want to applaud and shout your own approval, so pointed and beautifully written and acted is this scene -- combining philosophy with ethics, history, morality and passion. It brings to a near-close a most worthwhile film, one that I hope will send viewers right back to have a look at (or perhaps like me, another go-round with) her ground-breaking book.

Hannah Arendt, from Zeitgeist Films and running 113 minutes, has its U.S. theatrical premier this Wednesday, May 29, in New York City at Film Forum and will then start working its way around the country. Click here to see all currently scheduled  playdates, with cities and theaters listed.

IN PERSON!  Filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta will appear with star Barbara Sukowa, co-star Janet McTeer and co-screenwriter Pamela Katz, on May 29, at the 6:30 & 7:45 shows on Friday, May 31, and the 7:45 show only on Saturday, June 1, at 7:45 von Trotta alone will appear.

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