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by David Mertz
June 4, 2013 9:00 AM
2 Comments
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A Philosophy Ph.D. Reviews 'Hannah Arendt'

"Hannah Arendt."

Perhaps the greatest problem faced by von Trotta as a filmmaker was how to effectively present the moments of interiority that are essential to the story of the film. These years saw many large and dramatic external events in Arendt's life, and in those of the people around her.  At the same time, much of what needed to be presented was her process of articulating her famous concept of the "banality of evil" (and related analyses).  The fact that Sukowa is such an amazing and expressive actor certainly helps in this task, but the problem remains. In one truly lovely device, von Trotta shows Arendt in her New York study, surrounded by piles of transcripts from the trial, with many voices of those who testified echoing in ghostly fragments. What we hear is not full statements by any given person, but it is enough to have a sense of one victim as it fades into the testimony of another. Over time, von Trotta depicts Arendt's internalization of the meanings of these comments into her own synthetic picture, but the movie doesn't have the common flat-footedness of simply narrating a single document by a voice-over by its writer.

The only breaks in "Hannah Arendt" from a generally linear and chronological narrative of the few years it occupies are several past scenes of the young Arendt's relationship (played by Freiderike Becht), both as a university student and lover of Heidegger. The precise relationship of Heidegger to Nazism is a matter of philosophical and historical contention. Some philosophers and historians -- most famously, Chilean historian Victor Farías (with whom I personally concur) -- see Heidegger's philosophy itself as essentially infused with the viewpoint of National Socialism, while others see his never-renounced party membership and administrative complicity as merely personal failings of the man. One thing that is certainly emphasized within the film is the contrast between Eichmann who "didn't think" and Heidegger, whom Arendt considers both a profound thinker and a philosopher who placed the process of thought at the center of the content of his philosophy. That is, all philosophers obviously value thinking by occupation, but not all treat "thinking about thought" as their fundamental concept, as Heidegger -- and Arendt -- did.

As a viewer, I'm intrigued by the contrast between the type and degree of culpability in the actions of Eichmann versus Heidegger. To me, Heidegger stands as far more profoundly evil in this picture.  Moreover, the fact that Arendt both enacted a degree of reconciliation with Heidegger after the war -- shown briefly in the film -- and continued to treat his ideas centrally in her own thought, constituted both a "tragic flaw" in her personally and a weakness in the philosophical analyses she conducted.

The conclusion of the film is conducted in the manner of a number of films that deal with dramatic and intellectual controversies. Following a great deal of criticism for her work and concepts, the finale is a seven minute speech outlining the ideas developed in this work before a group of students and faculty at a fictionalized composite of the various universities she taught and lectured at, which effectively ties together most of the themes and ideas addressed throughout the film.

The speech is convincingly written by von Trotta and co-screenwriter Pam Katz, based on a variety of publications by Arendt -- some in fact dating from years later than the events portrayed -- but maintains a stylistic integrity that very much resembles Arendt's. This effective conclusion both answers the questions of the prior two hours and
leaves us, as it should, with far more that we as audience should hope to answer ourselves.

Employed as a freelance Ideational Bricoleur, David Mertz's life path has wound him through a variety of careers. Nestled in with a doctorate in philosophy from University of Massachusetts at Amherst and some years as an accidental professor, he published occasionally on film theory, and various other hyphenated-theories.  Somewhere in there he wrote about computer programs, worked in scientific research, published on security technologies, and volunteered with good-guy political organizations This review is an edited version of one published at gnosis.cx, and used with permission of its author.


2 Comments

  • Caleb | July 11, 2013 10:20 AMReply

    Thanks for the review. I disagree with you on the continued engagement with Heidegger as "tragic flaw" in Arendt's personal and intellectual life, but so it goes. I feel that untangling the paradox of Heidegger's philosophy and political life is a project worth pursuing, rather than one to be shunned.

    One tip for Indiewire: You may want to change the lead photo to one of the character of Arendt in the film. Right now it shows her colleague Mary McCarthy, portrayed by Janet McTeer. Makes it clear that the editors of this website haven't seen the film!

  • Jordan | June 5, 2013 10:10 AMReply

    I got so much out of this article I think because it shifts seamlessly from review to criticism to analysis to theory. Great having a Philosophy PhD write about a philosopher's biopic!