Movie mavens may have to come up with a new genre to classify “Hannah Arendt,” the biopic of the German Jewish philosopher.
New York Times critic A.O. Scott suggests it is an action film — albeit one in which the weapons are ideas, and theories are volleyed on a battlefield where a questionable hypothesis can turn lifelong friends into bitter enemies.
Director Margarethe von Trotta, who has dealt previously with complex Jewish women (“Rosa Luxemburg”) and the Nazi era (“Rosenstrasse”), faced a particularly daunting task in visually portraying the life of a woman known mainly for her ideas. Footage of Arendt at work is interspersed with shots of her silently chain smoking, pacing back and forth, sitting at a typewriter or just staring at the ceiling.
But if nothing else, “Hannah Arendt” shows that a contest of the mind can be just as intense and vicious as an armed conflict.
The film opens in the Bay Area Friday, Aug. 2 after screening in the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival on July 28.
Arendt arrived in America in 1941, a Jewish refugee from Nazi-occupied Europe. She was an intellectual respected in professional circles but mostly unknown to the public. And so she may have remained, save for the fateful decision of legendary New Yorker editor William Shawn to send her, rather than a seasoned journalist, to cover the Adolf Eichmann trial in Jerusalem.
The decision would forever change Arendt’s life. Her series in the New Yorker — later expanded in her book “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil” — triggered a furor and made “banality of evil” into an enduring catchphrase used to describe the abdication of moral judgment demonstrated by Eichmann and Nazi bureaucrats in carrying out the orders of their superiors.
Arendt’s view of Eichmann as a soulless technocrat rather than the embodiment of evil, and her belief that Jews were complicit in facilitating the deportations of their coreligionists to the death camps, aroused widespread condemnation. Many of her closest friends broke with her. The Anti-Defamation League reportedly urged rabbis to denounce the book in their High Holy Day sermons.
In the film, Arendt’s secretary points to three piles of letters. The smallest stack is letters from people “who think you are good,” the secretary says. A stack three times higher is “from people who think you are terrible.” And the third, medium-size, stack is “ from people who want you dead.”
In one heart-wrenching scene, Arendt flies to Israel and the deathbed of Kurt Blumenfeld, perhaps her closest companion since the days when they were members of a Zionist youth group in Germany. Arendt tries to mollify and comfort Blumenfeld, but in his last gesture, he turns his back on her.
The scene’s drama is exceeded only by a tour de force near the film’s end, when Arendt, facing a class at the New School in Manhattan, mounts a passionate defense of her writings. Summarizing her philosophy, she exhorts the students to think independently if the human race is to avoid future catastrophes on the level of the Holocaust. She also tries to persuade her critics that in trying to understand the mentality of Nazi war criminals, she in no way means to exculpate or forgive them.
Not all of “Hannah Arendt” is about intellectual sparring or pensive brooding. She is portrayed as an ardent woman, capable of discussing obscure philosophical points while shooting pool, and loyal and loving to her husband despite his occasional extramarital affairs.
Arendt herself was no stranger to illicit encounters. In a flashback, we see her as a young university student involved in a love affair with her professor, the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who joined the Nazi party in 1933.
Some critics have detected in Arendt a certain intellectual snobbishness and a disdain for the mental capacity of the “lower classes,” which may have led her to denigrate Eichmann as a man incapable of thinking for himself. In the film, Shawn points out that in her story, she inserted a term in Greek that few New Yorker readers could understand.
“In that case,” Arendt replies, “they should learn Greek.”
In a sense, Arendt’s forceful intellect was both her strength and weakness, shaping her view of the Eichmann trial “from the perspective of a distant and somewhat ironic observer,” said Barbara Sukowa, the German actress who puts in a brilliant performance in the title role. Perhaps as a result, Arendt could not imagine how hurtful her pronouncements were to Holocaust survivors and the families of victims.
The movie’s dialogue is in German and English, and the film gains authenticity from frequently inserted clips from the actual Eichmann trial. The production was supported financially in part by the Israel and Jerusalem film funds.
“Hannah Arendt” opens Friday, Aug. 2 at the Opera Plaza in San Francisco, Shattuck in Berkeley, Camera 3 in San Jose and Smith Rafael Center in San Rafael. In German anEnglish subtitles. (Unrated, 109 minutes)