At 71, Margarethe von Trotta is often called, by North American cineastes at least, “Germany’s foremost female film director.” Admittedly, it’s not an especially crowded field. Nevertheless, in the last 35 years, von Trotta has amassed an oeuvre, for television and film, estimable in both quantity and quality. A feminist who’s quick to deny she makes “women’s films,” she at the same time has never shied away from embracing women’s stories, be they fictional or based on real-life examples.
Hannah Arendt, which had its world premiere at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival, is the latest (and possibly the last) in a batch of biopics on strong, contrarian, creative females with deep ties to Germany. All three – the first, Rosa Luxemburg, was released in 1986, the second, Vision, about the 12th-century Catholic mystic and polymath Hildegard von Bingen, in 2009 – star the same actress, Barbara Sukowa, whom the director first directed in 1981 in Marianne and Julianne. That film earned von Trotta a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, making her only the second woman to that time to have obtained the festival’s top honour. (The first, Leni Riefenstahl, took what was then called the Mussolini Prize for Olympia in 1938.)
The Globe and Mail interviewed von Trotta during her visit to Toronto.
I’ve heard you’ve had a script for Hannah Arendt since 2004?
The first idea for Hannah Arendt may even have been 2003. But the first script was not what you see now. In the beginning we thought we might make a real biopic, from her childhood until the end . And then we saw that that was impossible, to try to describe the whole life in two hours. It would have meant jumping from one moment to the other and having no time to get a little bit deeper. Also, you’re mainly dealing with a person who thought so much, who is really the representative of the thinking person, contrary to Eichmann [senior Nazi official Adolf Eichmann, who was tried for war crimes in Israel in 1961, and later executed], who is not thinking. So after two years we decided to have only the four years of the Eichmann trials and what happened after, 1960 to 1964. The interesting thing, of course, is that when Hannah went to Israel, she thought she’d be seeing this monster, the devil, like all of us would have, and then all of a sudden she sees this petty bureaucrat, this man who is unable to think, this seeming total nobody whose language is the language of the office, [with a] total incapacity to say a sentence grammatically correct. [Part of the reason] we used documentary footage from the trial is that if we’d found an actor to play Eichmann, you’d only be aware of the brilliance of the actor. We wanted to avoid that.
Was there a common methodology you brought to all three of the historical figures you’ve made movies about?
For all three, I go through the letters. For me, the letters are very, very important material, to get a feeling for the person. For Rosa Luxemburg alone, I read 2,500 letters to get what I wanted to show.… Hannah Arendt, you know, was very fond of Rosa Luxemburg and wrote an essay about her and when I told one of [Arendt’s oldest surviving friends] that Barbara Sukowa will play the part of Hannah, she said: “Oh, Hannah would have been so happy to hear that the same actress who played Rosa will be playing her.”
Arendt’s writings on the Eichmann trial were controversial mainly for two things, and each gets a pretty thorough airing in the film. One is the notion of the ‘banality of evil’ that she saw embodied in Eichmann, the other was her depiction of the complicity of the Judenrats [councils of Jews formed by the Nazis in occupied territories] in helping the Nazis carry out the Holocaust. Is it your feeling now that we can look back at her writings and that time a little more calmly, with a little more perspective, to see that her critics didn’t necessarily grasp the nuances of what she was saying?
There were so many critics who didn’t even bother to read the articles [published in The New Yorker before being issued collectively as the book Eichmann in Jerusalem]. They were just repeating what they heard from somewhere and then it was blown up and blown up and it became a personalized issue. People forget that the Judenrat took up only about five pages of the book.
Do you have another female biopic in your head? Do you have a little list?
No. I get so many offers and so many propositions now. All the people writing about women in history, they all send me propositions to make movies.… Barbara and I are, in fact, doing another film together [it will be their seventh collaboration], but it is not a biopic. She will be a singer and it will be contemporary. I’m through with all that [historical pictures]. Only contemporary stories from now on.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Hannah Arendt screens at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox from June 21 to 27 (tiff.net).