The German actress Barbara Sukowa gives a passionate, tightly coiled performance as the ferociously intelligent title character in “Hannah Arendt,” a portrait of the influential political theorist during the most tumultuous chapter in her career.
In 1960, when the former Nazi SS leader Adolf Eichmann was scheduled to stand trial in Israel for war crimes, Arendt contacted the New Yorker proposing to write about the event. The ensuing articles and book – in which Arendt most famously coined the term “banality of evil” to characterize the “mediocrity of the man” in relation to the monstrous acts Eichmann committed, and in which she wrote a clear-eyed account of the complicity of some Jewish leaders – not only cemented Arendt’s role as a formidable public intellectual but also alienated her from the friends and colleagues with whom she had so joyously smoked and argued, competed and commiserated.
Director Margarethe von Trotta reanimates the lively literary milieu of postwar New York – where Arendt taught at the New School – with mostly convincing verisimilitude, especially when Arendt is gossiping with her good friend Mary McCarthy, whom Janet McTeer plays with terrific warmth and acerbity.
The pace only slackens with the starchy line readings delivered by Arendt’s academic and journalistic colleagues, who often sound like well-read human billboards for the skepticism and outrage that met Arendt’s then-controversial theories on the relationship between totalitarianism, human agency and the nature of evil.
Von Trotta artfully edits in actual footage of the trial of Eichmann – here seen in all his owlish, twitchy contemptuousness – occasionally flashing back to Arendt’s formative friendship with her mentor and lover, the philosopher Martin Heidegger. As “Hannah Arendt” progresses, what seems to be Arendt’s pure, fiercely defended intellectual honesty emerges as something more complex, bound up with her own Jewish identity, detention during World War II and conflicted relationship with the secular German intelligentsia.
It’s not easy to make a dynamic film about someone thinking, but “Hannah Arendt” is just that, thanks largely to Sukowa’s astringent but enormously sympathetic portrayal of a woman dedicated to the notion that passion and the life of the mind can and should be inextricably fused. Apart from that star turn, “Hannah Arendt” should be seen, if only for its bracing reminder that critical thinking leads directly to moral judgment. It’s a particularly timely – and chastening – message in our own anti-intellectual age.