The term “banality of evil” has floated through the lexicon ever since German philosopher and columnist Hannah Arendt coined the phrase during the Eichmann trial back in 1961. In fact, the words gained so much traction that they have undoubtedly lost some impact due to overuse. However, this film takes equal interest in the backlash that she received on her remarks about the Jewish community. Her claim that the Jews were collaborators with the Nazis and privy to their own destruction, undoubtedly would be unpopular now. Back then it was a pure lightning rod for scurrilous criticism and hateful backlash.
A film about Eichmann would be supremely fascinating, but this is a film about Arendt, a woman of great depth and passion. She’s not always agreeable. She’s not always right with all the answers. But she’s a woman of immense intelligence who is willing to ask questions, the tough questions.
She grew up under the tutelage of great philosophizer and passionate lover Martin Hedinger, but she ultimately found love in a different place in the arms of her present husband Heinrich Blucher. While continuing her work as a professor, a position she cherishes, Arendt takes up an opportunity to cover the Eichmann trial for the New Yorker. She’s a Jew who was lucky enough to get away from the Nazis’ clutches. Now she has a remnant of friends who remember the old days, while she still continues a life in a more globalized world.
The Eichmann trial is brought us through a melding of real, unchanged footage from the actual case that is conveniently blended with period scenes. It’s integral to the film, but as hinted to before, it is not the core. As the title suggests, this is about Hannah Arendt and the thoughts that fill her mind.
It’s not a revolutionary bit of storytelling or a cinematic tale of great noteworthiness, but Margarethe von Trotta’s film is a biopic that is interesting enough to sustain an adequate degree of intrigue. Her frequent collaborator Barbara Sukowa helps to bring this titan of 20th century thought to life. Whether she’s sitting in a drawing room, pounding away on her typewriter, or nervously smoking the ubiquitous cigarettes, we get the cues in order to try and unpack a version of this woman. She’s a woman with underlying warmth towards her close friends, but also a vibrant energy that imbues every word and thought with purpose.
In her final impassioned speech to her students, she lays down her thoughts with all the earnestness she can muster. She is not a defender of Eichmann or a hater of the Jewish people. It is only that the crime they are witnessing is something hardly ever seen before. It was not some complicated system or intricate ideology propping up a man, but only a common, everyday nobody without any grandiose motives. That’s what she was trying to understand — this banality of evil.
She’s certainly not superhuman or without fault, but I think her great strength was an effort to try and understand things on a deeper level. Man is a strange beast and as such we are prone to predilections and rhythms that lead down roads of corruptions. It’s so easy to function without purpose or meaning. To live a life where we so quickly give up all personal conviction in favor of thoughtless action. To her credit, Arendt might be many things, but she never gave up her mental capacity for thought. It drove her to constantly ask the tough questions.