In a remarkably personal and grounded film, the story of Hannah Arendt’s rapport on the trial of Adolf Eichmann gives us a slanted view into the nature of evil.
The story follows Hannah Arendt, coiner of the phrase “the banality of evil”. We follow her coverage of the trial in Jerusalem in 1962, and the subsequent reactions to her publications on the subject. It covers roughly four years, apart from a few flashbacks to her time in school and her affair with the philosopher Martin Heidegger.
If you don’t know anything about Arendt, fear not, because although the film gives little context, it is easy to follow. I freely admit I took a refresher gander at a few wikipedia articles, but I am convinced any viewer will be able to watch this and be intrigued enough to rush home and do some googling after the fact.
Though the film opens with the kidnapping of Eichmann, and includes clever use of archive material from the trial, the story is Arendt’s in every sense. Her relationship with her husband is central, and their relationships and conversations with their friends are a guide into her intellectual journey to her conclusions on Eichmann and the nature – or banality – of evil. Such a description might sound a bit pretentious, but it is far from it. The film feels very well grounded and personal, not least thanks to the actor Barbara Sukowa.
When it comes to the case in hand, the film is Hannah Arendt’s story and so celebrates her convictions. The debate about Israel’s right to trial Eichmann is done with contagious energy, and here we hear all the different views. However, any answer to her resulting book comes in the form of an attack on her perceived defence of Eichmann. Her critics are all intellectually inferior – her friends all warn her it’s expected – so no actual debate can happen on her conclusions. This is something the film doesn’t exactly need, since it is a limited story in that sense, so I suppose you will have to be content to google any nuances on the subject.
Despite the above “limit”, the film actually tries to do too much. The flashbacks to her days with Heidegger give only a glimpse, and we are left with the sense of a missing prequel to her intellectual development. Because of these haphazardly placed flashbacks, the film occasionally came across as directionless. Perhaps the subject matter would have been better suited to a mini-series.
Do not let that put you off. The film is very stimulating, and I for one want to dig through my old history and philosophy books. Even when Arendt is just lying on the couch, thinking, you feel the weight of the questions. The film is well composed and beautifully coloured to fit the times. It left me wishing I had been a student in such times, for I was leaning forward much as her students in the film, though I would have loved more questions put to her. It is a film about a time where one generation had to deal with facing their past, and the new one was trying to understand what their parents were dealing with.
Dice roll: 4