On the evening of May 11, 1960, a man walked off a bus in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He was immediately captured, drugged and flown to Israel, where he would be tried for 15 criminal charges, including crimes against humanity. The man was Adolf Eichmann — a former Nazi SS lieutenant and the man in charge of deporting Jews to the ghettos and concentration camps. The trial, which began in 1961, attracted international attention, but it was the German-American political theorist Hannah Arendt’s five-part report of the event for The New Yorker that left a lasting and still controversial impact. Now, Arendt’s coverage of the trial, her ideas and her personal struggles can be seen in director Margarethe von Trotta’s new film, “Hannah Arendt.”
At nearly two hours long, the film puts Arendt in the midst of her academic career and covers her unexpected reactions to the trial and the subsequent controversy that surrounded her New Yorker piece. This may sound like a vague recap, but there are a lot of inherent difficulties when it comes to this film’s subject matter. The difficulties have nothing to do with the problematic topic of the Holocaust or of the criminal justice system but relate to storytelling in general. There’s a lot of context at play here, too much to summarize in any acceptable form in this review, and von Trotta’s film, for the worse, tries to cram it all in with nary the amount of detail the material deserves.
First, the film has to explain who “Hannah Arendt” is. After opening with Eichmann’s kidnapping in Argentina, we see Arendt and her New York intellectual cohort talk philosophy, politics and current events. From the conversations, especially from the editors of The New Yorker, we can tell Arendt is someone vital and someone we should have heard of, which is an incredibly strange choice given that vieweres would not be seeing a film about Hannah Arendt, called “Hannah Arendt,” if they had no clue who she was and why she is so significant. And yet the film goes to great lengths to both play to a presumably ignorant audience and adhere to a more academic crowd.
For a movie about a trial and article that highlights the complexity of perspective, “Hannah Arendt” sure does find itself muddled in its narrative clarity. At one moment, while Arendt and her German friends converse in their native tongue, the camera cuts to two Americans who, with puzzled faces, say something along the lines of “I have no idea what they’re saying!” Then, when Arendt is in Jerusalem for the trial, she and a German friend spout philosophical bon mots without any explanation or purpose.
It isn’t until the actual trial, about a half-hour in, when the film starts to pick up steam. We see actual footage of Eichmann, nervously twitching in his glass booth, at the trial — spliced with filmed reactions of Arendt and others. It’s an effective editing technique, and it’s powerful when placed in the context of Arendt’s momentous New Yorker piece. But at the end of the film, after Arendt has suffered personal and political abandonment on account of her opinions, the initial confusion still persists: What does it all mean?
This is the question Arendt had to answer when writing about Eichmann’s trial. Her contentious conclusion became a catch-all for why the Holocaust happened. In her words, it was “the banality of evil.” Eichmann was not a monster. He was a normal man, like most of the SS bureaucrats, who lacked empathy and followed orders. It’s an incredibly important and influential idea, much like the woman who coined it. Unfortunately, unlike its subject matter, “Hannah Arendt” lacks the focus and depth. It never really explores woman behind “the banality of evil”; it’s just banal.