It’s not just that complex ideas are hard to sell in today’s cinema; it’s also that the thinking of complex ideas is hard to dramatize in any day’s cinema.
So director Margarethe von Trotta has set herself a tough task in Hannah Arendt, which focuses mainly on four years in the philosopher’s life – the early sixties when she covered the Adolf Eichmann trial for The New Yorker, found herself struck by the “huge difference between the horror of the deeds and the mediocrity of the man,” then wrote the long and controversial piece that so incurred the wrath of her fellow Jews.
Beyond repeated shots of Arendt chain-smoking and pondering, von Trotta has no luck conveying thought’s interior struggle. But, helped by the exemplary Barbara Sukowa in the title role, she effectively captures the exterior battles with the critics and, more important, the thinker’s unwavering belief in the value of, and need for, intellectual rigour untainted by politics or sentiment.
En route, despite some clumsy exposition and the reduction of heavyweights like Mary McCarthy and William Shawn to fifth-business caricatures, the film does manage one impressive intellectual achievement of its own: rescuing that “banality of evil” phrase from the banal cliché it’s become and, by providing the full and daring context, giving it real meaning again.
Hannah Arendt screens at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox from June 21 to 27 (tiff.net).