According to Hollywood conventions, biopics -- perhaps all the more so ones whose titles are their subjects -- are permitted to follow one of two tropes, or optionally to make both gestures at once. Some filmic biographies are merely hagiographies; this is not necessarily a bad thing, some subjects really do warrant plain praise, either because of who they are or because of the salutary politics of doing so. Brian Helgeland's 2013 biography of Jackie Robinson, "42," fell into this category and was reasonable in what it did. Socialist Realism retains its virtues.
Many other biographies in film strive to show the dark or conflicted lives and thoughts of their subjects -- musicians and painters especially, by convention and perhaps reality, struggle with drug addiction, failed relationships, difficult childhoods, and so on. And yet they overcome these obstacles to achieve artistic greatness. Or, at the most sinister end of this spectrum, biographical subjects are persons of infamy rather than of fame, and it is their negative quality that compels our interest. For example, real-life serial killers have been well and horrifyingly portrayed in John McNaughton's "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" and Patty Jenkins' 2003 "Monster."
Margarethe von Trotta thoroughly eschews both of these filmic biographic conventions in her presentation of important intellectual figures, both in her 1986 "Rosa Luxemburg" and in "Hannah Arendt," which opened theatrically last week.
In part, von Trotta's approach might seem to flow entirely from her selection of serious, engaged, and political thinkers. However, I do not think the seriousness and intellectual import of portrayed subjects suffices alone to evade a stylistic familiarity. For example, Ron Howard's 2001 "A Beautiful Mind" showed the personal struggle of John Nash with schizophrenia, and his contrasting greatness in mathematical discoveries. In a somewhat similar
pattern, David Cronenberg's "A Dangerous Method" showed the eminently political and transformative writings of Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud, Sabina Spielrein -- and to an extent Otto Gross -- but filtered through the personal conflicts and struggles amongst them (arguably, Cronenberg's "Naked Lunch" did something similar for William S.
Von Trotta does something nearly unique with Hannah Arendt in making the process of thought itself the compelling central motif, in a manner that recapitulates Arendt's own focus on the process of thought as a starting point of a philosophical system. As a framing device, the film covers only the few years in the early 1960s in which Arendt was writing Eichmann in Jerusalem, though a variety of the phrases and comments she gives in the film are excerpted, appropriately, from her posthumous "Life of the Mind." The framing of the current film also contrasts with that of von Trotta's earlier "Rosa Luxemburg" inasmuch as the latter generally takes on the whole of Luxemburg's adult life, and generally in a conventional chronological manner. While to my own mind, Luxemburg, despite her early murder, was the more profound thinker, von Trotta’s biography of Luxemburg falls closer to the
"greatness through struggle" trope.
While "Hannah Arendt" has great appeal to those of us steeped in the history of Western philosophy, its appeal is by no means confined to residents of ivory towers. Without either dumbing down the material or assuming a background philosophical knowledge, von Trotta lets the audience wrestle with the same intellectual problems that Arendt herself did during this process, including letting many of Arendt’s critics -- many of whom were friends and colleagues -- argue against Arendt’s views.
Moreover, as much as I am characterizing the film in terms of its intellectual gestures and debates, the presentation as film narrative is engaging, and at many times quite wryly funny. A process of thought is depicted in the film, but it is done by depicting a few years of a life filled with friendships disrupted, maintained, and reclaimed, with an authentically portrayed and touching death of a mentor, with conflicts and back-biting in university employment, with a marriage both tender and challenging, with political debates over justice and society, and
with a fascinating glimpse into a certain moment of New York social history.
There are a number of very good films which have followed characters -- fictional writers, professors, and so on -- whose life events are less eventful than those Arendt experienced in these years; many of these films present a compelling character narrative on that alone, even though the ideas and works they created remain purely notional within those fictional narratives. As a biographical subject, Arendt's life has fascinating twists and turns in itself, and the portrayal of these is both engagingly written and meticulously acted by the film's cast.