IN THE MOVIE Hannah Arendt, the philosopher Hannah Arendt smokes a lot of cigarettes. The poster shows the pensive face of actress Barbara Sukowa posed in profile against the New York skyline, like a mirror image of the most famous photograph of Friedrich Nietzsche except for the cigarette burning in her hand.
After opening with a nighttime scene of a thin man, whom we soon learn is Adolf Eichmann, being seized and thrown into the back of a truck, the film cuts through an establishing shot of the New York skyline to Arendt stretched out on a chaise longue, smoking. A mobile camera makes its way around the bookshelves, whose slightly shabby clutter signify both her exile and her erudition, to her stockinged feet, up the length of her body before stopping on the long drag that she is in the middle of taking and letting her finish.
The gestures of camera and actress both reiterate the voyeuristic promise of the film: it will let us see the private life of a great mind. (Never mind that all evidence suggests that Arendt would have balked at being seen this way.) The next scene underscores that director Margarethe von Trotta is making this promise to her viewer woman to woman. She will use intimate details to reveal Arendt’s feminine side, in particular. Von Trotta shows Arendt by day, curled on her sofa with her friend, the novelist Mary McCarthy, played by British actress Janet McTeer. Her camera sticks close to Arendt, as she teases McCarthy for her bourgeois hang-ups about her husband Edmund Wilson’s infidelities, and waves away suggestions that she too must feel upset by her own philandering husband, Heinrich Blücher.
“We Germans realize you don’t have to marry all your lovers,” Arendt scoffs affectionately, punctuating the line by flicking ash from her cigarette.
Like the dialogue, the prop is there to demonstrate her European worldliness, as well as her famous sociability. We never learn what brand Hannah smokes. Like many of the vignettes that von Trotta uses to bring the philosopher to life, her bad habit is less a concrete detail than a kind of shorthand for the smoldering intensity of her thought and for her ordinary human weaknesses. Its banality highlights the major shortcoming of the film. The director’s naïve faith in the public and particularly feminist interest of private life is at its most striking in Hannah Arendt, if only because it runs so blatantly against the first principles of Arendt’s own thought.
Von Trotta has often repeated the familiar chiasmus that she is not a feminist filmmaker, but a filmmaker who happens to be female. Yet, she has built a career making biopics about important women and dramas that examine events in German history through their impact on ordinary women’s lives. Having started as an actress in the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Volker Schlöndorff, to whom she was married for two decades, von Trotta emerged as a director toward the end of the heyday of the New German Cinema. After collaborating with Schlöndorff on an adaptation of Heinrich Böll’s novel, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (1975), von Trotta made her first solo feature in 1977.
Marianne and Juliane (1981) was her international breakthrough. It won a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, making von Trotta the first woman to receive the award since Leni Riefenstahl, for Olympia, in 1938. The second in a trilogy, which began with Sisters, or the Balance of Happiness (1979) and ended with Three Sisters (1988), it also established von Trotta’s signature genre: the “sister film.” A fictionalized portrait of the relationship between Gudrun Ensslin, who co-founded the radical militant Red Army Faction in the 1960s, and Gudrun’s sister Johanna, who worked as a leftist journalist, Marianne and Juliane traces the upheavals of this period through the clashes between them.
At the European Graduate School, where she is on faculty, von Trotta offers a course on her own work entitled “The Personal as Political.” But Marianne and Juliane does not highlight how private life could become an arena for political action as much as it shows a private individual suffering the personal consequences of actions that her publicly notorious sister has taken. When Marianne, played by a younger Sukowa, disappears for years on end, kinship and decency force Juliane to clean up her mess. After Marianne dies, likely murdered by the police, in Stammheim prison, and her orphaned son, Felix, is attacked in foster care, Juliane adopts him although she vowed she never wanted children. In the final shot, Felix demands that Juliane tell him about his mother. Von Trotta gives this belated experience of maternity the last word.
A self-conscious desire to connect public to private life shapes von Trotta’s visual style as well as her stories. For much of her 1986 biopic of Rosa Luxemburg, which also stars Sukowa, von Trotta literally alternates scenes of Luxemburg speaking publicly with vignettes of her embracing or quarreling with her lifelong off-and-on lover and colleague, the revolutionary Leo Jogiches. The film switches between long shots of packed halls and cramped views of domestic spaces. In moments of tension von Trotta dollies in and holds extreme close-ups on the faces of the couple. The snippets of Luxemburg’s writings cited at her rallies feel perfunctory by contrast.
One moment in Rosenstraße (2003) may provide the clearest example of von Trotta’s faith in the natural affinity of women. Within a frame narrative about a Jewish New Yorker, who travels to Berlin to find out the truth about how her mother survived the war, the story focuses on a protest that took place there in early 1943. A group of German wives of Jewish husbands stood in the street of the title every day for nearly two months, until the men whom the Nazis had imprisoned there were returned to them. In one scene, the women notice that a fellow protestor is wearing a Nazi pin and confront her about it. “He is my sister’s husband,” she snaps. As the women accept this explanation, von Trotta show the group in longer shot, and then from a crane, overhead. The cut affirms that, for von Trotta, female solidarity trumps politics.
Sisterhood, in the “sister film,” serves two purposes, then. Female relationships both motivate the drama on screen and offer the viewer a model for her interest in it. Even when von Trotta is telling a story that is not literally about sisters she appeals to a sense of spontaneous affiliation. This feel-good feminism has played well in the post-national EU. Von Trotta has continued to tap into a wide range of government subsidies from multiple countries since the funding that sustained the New German Cinema dried up, and her films have performed respectably at festivals and in art cinemas abroad. But feel-good feminism constitutes a dubious political philosophy and encourages a lazy style. Ironically, von Trotta’s overinvestment in an idea of the personal makes the people in her films hollow. Trying to humanize the great women who are their subjects, these biopics fall back on recycling private concerns that they suggest we all share, such as babies, lovers, or girlfriends. Where the political is merely personal, personality becomes empty and unchanging. Von Trotta’s films tends toward cliché because for her, in the end, the specifics among sisters do not matter.
Von Trotta is impressive for having managed to make her way among the legendary male egos of the New German Cinema, and she often educates viewers about historical and biographical details that they might have forgotten. But her filmmaking may be constitutionally incapable of seriously evaluating arguments.
Hannah Arendt purports to offer an account of a debate. In fact, it enlarges a pantheon. Ten years ago, a friend in the German television industry suggested to von Trotta that she direct a biopic about Hannah Arendt. Yet, von Trotta says, she could not commit to doing so until she had identified a Gegner, or dramatic “antagonist” to oppose to the philosopher. Without one she did not see how she could “translate the story of a thinker thinking into images.” Her collaborator, the American screenwriter Pam Katz, hit upon a solution when she proposed that they focus their script on the series of articles that Arendt wrote for The New Yorker covering the 1961 Adolf Eichmann trial, later republished as Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963).
Their decision to focus Arendt’s story through what remains both her bestselling and her most reviled book gave von Trotta and Katz a dramatic structure. Hannah Arendt begins with the capture of the SS-Obersturmführer responsible for coordinating the deportation of the European Jews. By this time Arendt has settled with her husband Heinrich Blücher in Morningside Heights, where they occupy the center of a lively social circle, comprised of fellow European émigrés and American colleagues from Bard and the New School, including Mary McCarthy. The news that Israel is going to try Eichmann breaks up their Upper West Side idyll. We see Arendt convincing New Yorker editor William Shawn to send her to Israel, and departing over Blücher’s worried protests.
In Jerusalem, and during the months of research and writing that follow, we watch her arriving at her most controversial conclusions: first, that the Jewish councils that the Nazis established in the countries they occupied cooperated with deporting Jews from Western Europe, and thus increased the death tolls of the concentration camps; second, that it was Eichmann’s “mediocrity,” or his “inability to think,” rather than ardent anti-Semitism, that made him such an effective agent of mass murder.
The latter half of the film shows Arendt taken aback by the furious reactions that Eichmann in Jerusalem inspired, including those from several German Jewish intellectuals who had been her dear friends. Insofar as the film presents itself as a record of their debate — von Trotta wanted to call it The Controversy, until her marketing team persuaded her otherwise — it should stage their arguments against hers. In interviews, however, von Trotta has identified Eichmann as the film’s antagonist. She opts to show him in black and white archival footage exclusively, which we see Arendt seeing (chain-smoking) in the pressroom of the Jerusalem courthouse. “Of course,” von Trotta told me in our interview, “I never had any thought of putting him up on screen, embodied by an actor, so people could say, ‘Wow, what a performance!’”
The arguments of Arendt’s opponents here only get a cursory treatment. This is consistent with the style of citation that seems to be the major liability in von Trotta’s approach to history, as well as to feminism. The secondary actors in von Trotta’s biopics often feel like signposts. At the New York press screening of Hannah Arendt, representatives from the distributor, Zeitgeist, handed out a xeroxed packet identifying the various figures on screen; certain scenes, like a few (gratuitous) flashbacks showing Arendt with her graduate school professor Martin Heidegger, would be unintelligible if you did not already know who he was and that the two had a love affair. The arguments from her critics feel like actor Klaus Pohl’s stage mustache: grown on a bit too quickly and dyed too starkly to convince.
The responses since Hannah Arendt came out in New York in May seem to confirm that the film engages its audience primarily as an allusion. Most American reviewers have either lauded von Trotta for reminding us about this important subject, or lambasted her for uncritically reiterating Arendt’s interpretation of Nazi crimes against humanity. In each case, their articles echo a view that Arendt held already.
As a historical film, too, Hannah Arendt plays to a kind of identity politics, that of the upper-middlebrow audience that it anticipates winning. It aims to give everyone what they want: European funding bodies get to subsidize films about figures and issues that have been established as important, without risking the sometimes crash-and-burn difficulty that characterized, for instance, Fassbinder’s work. (Or, for that matter, the austerity of Helma Sanders-Brahms Germany, Pale Mother.) The audience gets to enjoy sentimental pleasures while feeling flattered by understanding the film’s historical allusions. The result is a hybrid genre we might call a “heritage girl crush.”
Hannah Arendt is also a secret sister film, or girlfriend crush film, the real subject of which is Arendt’s relationship to Mary McCarthy. Von Trotta and Katz researched the script by immersing themselves in Arendt’s correspondence and interviewing Arendt’s former assistant, Lotte Köhler, who passed away in 2011; they often cite her letters, although not always in their original context. (For instance, they lift the dialogue of a climactic scene on the deathbed of Kurt Blumenfeld — a Zionist friend from Germany who hosted Arendt in Jerusalem but eventually broke with her over her the Eichmann articles — from a letter she wrote to Gershom Scholem. Sukowa voices Arendt’s explanation that she could not love the jüdisches Volk or any “people,” but only “individuals,” in anguish.)
The film makes much of the philosopher’s capacity for friendship. Other than Blücher, her husband, and several wide-eyed students whom we see faithfully attending her lectures, McCarthy and Köhler are the only ones who remain with Arendt. When other long-term allies turn, Köhler sorts hate mail for Arendt with wry smiles of consolation. In several scenes, McCarthy rallies spiritedly to her defense. The strongest pleasure of the film may be the promise that it dangles before the bookish viewer: to show what it would be like to have these women in your camp.
Unfortunately, however, von Trotta captures little of the particular texture of the friendships to which Arendt’s correspondence attests. We hear nothing about intellectual exchange beyond one or two passing references to McCarthy having tried and failed to pick up German. Instead, in the same way that the Luxemburg film suggested that what made Rosa saddest was that Leo Jogiches did not want to get her pregnant, we get the impression that Arendt and McCarthy spent all their free time gossiping about men.
Rather than cite the long article that McCarthy wrote defending Arendt in The Partisan Review, von Trotta shows the novelist bitching out sneering male colleagues at a New York Public Library event. The zingers that actress Janet McTeer delivers in the role of loyal girlfriend are sharp, but they have about as much to do with McCarthy as McCarthy does with Candace Bushnell (who has said that when her agent proposed to her that she write something like Sex and the City, she was handed a copy of McCarthy’s The Group as inspiration).
The final irony of Hannah Arendt is that no thinker would have been quicker to reject the premises that push the film toward hagiography and cliché. Arendt argued repeatedly that what we might call personal life — the labor and household activities involved in sustaining life — had no place in the shared world of politics that humans build through language. She was deeply suspicious of forms of political affiliation based on spontaneous solidarity. Origins of Totalitarianism culminates by arguing that what Hitler and Stalin both accomplished was a “destruction of individuality” that enabled them to bind mass populations under the “iron band of terror.” And, for all her generosity toward friends, Arendt was famously private. As University of Chicago professor Deborah Nelson has reminded readers in a wonderful article in American Literary History, when McCarthy delivered Arendt’s eulogy in 1975, she concluded by emphasizing the philosopher’s “respect for privacy, separateness, one’s own and hers.”
In the 1960s and 1970s, American feminists attacked Arendt for not taking a stance on the “woman question.” Adrienne Rich lamented in a famous, negative review that The Human Condition displayed "the tragedy of a female mind nourished on male ideology." Rich and others criticized Arendt for insisting upon a traditional distinction between private and public life that they argued was fundamentally sexist and classist, because it prevented anyone who was not privileged enough to avoid laboring from entering debates where they might try to improve their fate.
We might not want to maintain the distinction between household and polis as rigidly as canonical passages in The Human Condition seem to draw it. Yet the mediocrity of von Trotta’s films demonstrates how limiting unreflective solidarity is as an aesthetic as well as political philosophy. Watching Hannah Arendt made me wonder whether Arendt was not right in her essay collection Men in Dark Times, when she criticized a biography of Isak Dinesen, a woman whose writing she loved, for its unscrupulous speculations about the importance of her lovers and her travels to it:
"The connection of an artist's life with his work has always raised embarrassing problems,” Arendt writes, “and our eagerness to see recorded, displayed, and discussed in public what once were strictly private affairs and nobody's business is probably less legitimate than our curiosity is ready to admit."