Margarethe von Trotta's film about controversial political theorist Hannah Arendt is surprisingly dynamic 

Disturbing the Peace

Disturbing the Peace

"I'm not defending him!" is the first sentence Barbara Sukowa speaks as Hannah Arendt in Margarethe von Trotta's film of the same name, about the German-Jewish political theorist and philosopher. She is not talking about Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi official whose 1961 trial Arendt covered to such controversy — that comes later. Instead, she's speaking to her friend, novelist Mary McCarthy (played by Janet McTeer), about her flirtatious husband — a cue that Hannah Arendt is as much a film about social engagement among the 20th century's great intellects as about the incendiary political and philosophical ideas they wielded.

Chain-smoking and fiercely rapt, Sukowa brandishes the intellectual assurance — detractors would say arrogance — that remains Arendt's calling card. In a dinner-party sequence, the privileged guests offer up sophisticated, questioning ideas as the camera circles and lights on each (a technique that summons unfortunate memories of the round-table gabfests on That '70s Show). Once the camera settles on Arendt, though, she quickly dismisses the other observations with a quip and a pointed retort. In these early moments, her friends respond to her intellectual bullying with love.

That will not last. In the film's opening scene, Israeli police capture Eichmann, the Nazi lieutenant largely responsible for organizing the logistics of the Holocaust and its "Final Solution," and bring him to Israel to stand trial. Arendt travels to Jerusalem to report on the trial for The New Yorker, whose staff is introduced long enough to impart some clunky but necessary exposition.

The archival footage of the Eichmann trial, on the other hand, is absolutely essential to the film's effectiveness, and provides much of its most compelling material. Faced with day after day of Eichmann's bored smirk, which appears not so much menacing as bland, Arendt establishes what will become her most famous idea — "the banality of evil." Whether Eichmann is an anti-Semite or not is beside the point, she argues: He was simply, mindlessly following orders. Thus the Holocaust wasn't an act of diabolical supervillainy; it was something more mundane and hence more horrible to contemplate — genocide by dully methodical bureaucracy.

The script by von Trotta (an esteemed German actress as well as filmmaker) and Pam Katz dramatizes the intellectual leap Arendt takes from Eichmann as evil to Eichmann as nobody. This is not, as Arendt's friends will later accuse, a defense of Eichmann. It is, as she says, an attempt to "reconcile the shocking mediocrity of the man with his staggering deeds." As Tolstoy wrote in Anna Karenina, "There are no conditions of life to which a man cannot get accustomed, especially if he sees them accepted by everyone around him."

At the time, Arendt's widely challenged views (including those on the guilt of Jewish councils) made her a virtual pariah in her literary and intellectual circle. By the time her dying friend Kurt Blumenfeld (Michael Degen) turns his back on her for the last time, the audience is left feeling pity for everyone involved. Arendt is maddeningly logical — her friends can only take so much of her stoic, unfeeling rhetoric. Imagine how you would react if your friend described the Boston marathon bombers or the 9/11 hijackers as being just cogs in a wheel, incontrovertibly normal; now imagine that your friends and family had been at the race, or on board the plane. Trying to understand evil will undoubtedly humanize it, and that makes everyone but the iciest among us uncomfortable.

What Hannah Arendt does is take those still-troubling ideas and conflicts and make them easier to wrap our heads around. With just two scenes of flashbacks to her tutelage under philosopher Martin Heidegger (Klaus Pohl), the film concerns itself only with the events that lead up to the publication of her book Eichmann in Jerusalem. There are several silent scenes of Arendt sitting alone, her active mind practically visible behind a cloud of cigarette smoke. She seems done for at the point the film concludes. And yet as Sukowa delivers a powerful closing speech, the faces of Arendt's young students suggest that for future generations, the film's subject will be seen as a courageous provocateur who changed the way we regard the nature of man — and the nature of evil.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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