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TIFF: Interview with Margarethe von Trotta and Barbara Sukowa – Director and Star of Hannah Arendt

TIFF: Interview with Margarethe von Trotta and Barbara Sukowa - Director and Star of Hannah Arendt

Last, but not the bit least is a conversation with master director Margarethe von Trotta along with actress Barbara Sukowa who bring us the story of Hannah Arendt one of the first highly visible female intellectuals of the 20th century.  Arendt, a Jew, escaped from Europe in 1941 after being imprisioned in France.  

The film focuses on her being drawn to the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Israel and the controversy she stirred up when she wrote about the trail for The New Yorker especially for her radical notion on the banality of evil.

Women and Hollywood: You’ve dedicated your time in the film world to telling women’s stories. Can you talk about why that’s important to you?

MvT: You know, it’s not a program, it happens. It’s not that I say I have to because I feel responsible to only make films about woman, I think it was normal for me, that came up with it because I was only living with my mother. And my mother was a very strong and emancipated woman and she was not married.  When I was born it was still very difficult. So, she showed me how to be courageous.  I got that from the beginning of my life. I saw a woman who was strong and intelligent, but poor. We lived in very, very, very poor conditions, so everything we had were our culture and our education. And our courage.

WaH: What was it about Hannah that attracted you to the story?

MvT: The idea came from a friend.  I was afraid in the beginning. Why? Because nobody until now did a film about her. Because, it’s not obvious, no, that you can do a film about an intellectual.

WaH: They do films about intellectual men all the time. Right?

MvT: Yeah.

WaH: Nonstop, that’s all you see. Male thinkers.

MvT: Yes, yes, yes but to put it in images and I didn’t know her so well. I knew very well Rosa Luxemburg because I did the film and now I had to make research. When I accepted the idea, I read a lot about her and her letters. I read a lot of her stuff. Not everything, I must say, because that would put me in a personal lifetime to read everything she wrote. And I met people in New York who still knew her and her first biographer, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, and a friend  And we met her last assistant, he was then the editor of her scripts after the death. So, we had some testimonies and her letters.  All her correspondence with Heidegger, that’s not so certain, because Heidegger, I think destroyed all her letters. There are only his letters to her because she collected his letters. He didn’t because his wife was very jealous, so perhaps he couldn’t commit himself.

WaH: They don’t teach us about her here.

MvT: To portray a woman or a man or so, you have to get some flesh. You have to go not only with her ideas or her writing and from the letters you get a person.

WaH: She was such a high-profile female intellectual, and Barbara you can answer this too, in a time when there were not many high-profile women intellectuals of her stature.  When I was watching the movie I was struck by thinking that if a man had done what she had done, it wouldn’t have been as big as a betrayal. Do you have any comment on that?

Barbara Sukowa: Well, that I don’t know. I mean, Heidelberg was attacked, right?

MvT: Heidelberg? Yes. He was attacked and she based a lot of her writing, especially in Eichmann in Jerusalem on Heidelberg. I mean she was more public  like in the New Yorker. I mean she was brave. It’s interesting that a man didn’t do it, you know. But, I don’t think so. I think a man would have had, if he had written the same thing, might have had the same problem.

WaH: I don’t know. I just was thinking, you know its very hard to think about back to the time and the place, while she was supported by her friends in the movie it just seems like in some ways women at that time were hung out to dry in a little bit of a different way as a woman. That’s just kind of my personal view.

MvT: That may be. But, we can’t prove it. I never thought about it like that.

BS: That’s interesting because I never thought about it either.

MvT: She was not a feminist at all. She was, in a way she was a conventional housewife, also. She was a brilliant intellectual, but in a way she liked being a housewife.  She liked to be a woman. You know? And perhaps also because she had to have a counterbalance to her work with her mind to be able to do other things.

WaH: When I watched her I thought she was a feminist.

MvT: No, she comes over like that, but she didn’t see herself like that.

WaH: I think Mary McCarthy was the same way though, right?

MvT: Yup

WaH: You guys have such a special collaboration. Can you talk about that a little bit? Either one of you?

BS: Well, she always offers me parts that are really worth doing. Because it’s not just that you play a part, but you kind of enter into a whole different world and universe. And another intellectual sphere and that’s really fascinating, you know. You usually have to read about it and it’s not easy. It’s a challenge every single time.   Especially in the sense of Hannah Arendt and Rosa Luxembourg there were a lot of preconceptions about these people. You kind of run against that too.

MvT: I’m always saying I’m an eternal student and I go on studying with every film I’m doing and I like that. 

WaH: And your cowriter lives in the US and in Berlin?

MvT: Yeah, she’s great. She’s wonderful. When my friend had this idea and I was hesitating and I told Pam Katz that Martin Viebel had this idea she was so enthusiastic that she immediately started to look up and to read. So, she in a way she carried me with her.

WaH: When I was talking to some people about the movie and I said that there was a very visceral reaction to Hannah, especially from people who had family who lived through the Holocaust. There are people who haven’t forgiven her for what she has done.

MvT: Of course.  Have they seen the film?

WaH: No, they hadn’t seen the film, they were just reacting to her. She’s got a legacy especially to Jewish people that sets them off. And, so, I guess the question is has she been treated well by history in terms of how people remember her because people have such intense reactions to her?

BS: Well, it depends, some people do, some others don’t. I find it absolutely understandable that people react that way. And that there are also big misconceptions and big misunderstandings of her. She had a certain idea that a lot of people were against.  And the style she wrote, they had a feeling it was cold, it was distant, it was almost like cynical. She chose that on purpose because she hated to be sentimental. And she thought that there’s nothing really adequate to the horrors that have happened. So, she chose something which she thought was obvious and it was not meant to be taken at face value.

MvT: No, she didn’t want to portray herself as a victim. She wanted to be a reporter and a reporter has to be objective.

BS: But she was being ironic at times. She was not just a reporter. She was ironic at times and for that people didn’t forgive her.

MvT: Yeah. She said herself that she was very obvious, but in a way she was also ironic.

BS: Yeah, she did use irony sometimes.

MvT: And that’s also to hold back from her and not to put her own emotion in it, you know.

WaH: It’s fascinating.

MvT: She was also not a writer. She’s a philosopher. When a writer would have wrote about Eichmann or about this time, perhaps they would have come more with these personal emotions because a writer can’t step out of him or herself. But, she…

BS: But she wrote it to someone and I forgot now who it was. She also wanted that discussion. You know the part where she talked about the Jewish councils. She knew that this was controversial.

MvT: She knew it?

BS: Yes.

MvT: Not as much it came up to be.

BS: I don’t know if she wrote it later or earlier, but there is in one letter she wrote to somebody that she intended to cause a real strong discussion.

WaH: That’ll start another…

BS: I’ll have to find that.  I read it actually from Elizabeth Bruehler.

MvT: Yes, I do agree with that.

WaH: I love the fact that you created an incredible loving and her sexual relationship with her husband, which we don’t see so much. You humanized her in a way. So, talk about the importance of that.

MvT: She was human. We didn’t humanize her.

WaH: Maybe humanize is the wrong word.

MvT: It’s only if you only read her books, you can’t find that. But, if you read her letters, you find it obviously. If you speak with…

BS: Her friends. She was a great friend.

MvT: They were very helpful to describe her.

WaH: I don’t think I used the right word.  I think what I was trying to say was that we don’t see women in this fully formed way, we see a piece of women. And, especially older women onscreen. So, that was really lovely to see, in terms of giving a counterpoint to her intensity. So, talk about why that was important piece of the puzzle.

MvT: Yeah, that was meant.  I wanted to portray the whole woman and the whole human being and not only one part. And so, I think that she, and, we have so many parts of our character and if you only see one then it’s very minimizing.

BS: You know she was an incredible friend. She was also very compassionate to so many causes and she gave so much money to different causes. And, I remember when Margarethe started out as a director and she got interviewed she had to be so much fiercer as a woman and so much stronger because journalists would ask her really stupid questions often that were sometimes a bit demeaning.  And I think if you look at Hannah Arendt in that time, I think women had to be so much more strident and clearer that they came off as much harder. And people were sometimes afraid of her because they thought you were that kind of woman, but she’s not at all, she’s the opposite, but she came across in interviews and on TV as this almost hard woman because she really had to fight for something.

WaH: What do you think her legacy is?

MvT: She was a philosopher and a political philosopher, or political thinker.  And, she was always open always contradicting herself  And so, I think that is the best way to look at the world.

WaH: To have an open mind.

MvT: And to look at the world with sympathy. And not to go back over to yourself and be like Heidegger after the war. He went into himself and he didn’t want to see the outside, no.

WaH: He internalized?

MvT: And for her that was the wrong way to behave. She wants to look at the world. Amor mundi, to love the world. Looking at the world and loving the world.

BS: Free as a leaf, she said.

WaH: Do you think people are going to be more interested in her now?

MvT: Yes.

WaH: Because of the way the world is now in terms of these kinds of wars and how people are following orders?

MvT: She was, in a way, she was for many things she was prophetic.

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