Monday Movie Post: Watching a Thinker Think

`Hannah Arendt' gets her mostly right. 
Barbara Sukowa as Hannah Arendt. Source: Zeitgeist Films via Bloomberg

I'm reviving an occasional feature that I used to do at Plain Blog: Monday Movie Posts. It'll sometimes be about TV, books or songs, too. As long as they have enough political content.

Today's movie is "Hannah Arendt," directed by Margarethe von Trotta, and released in 2012. It's essentially a retelling of the "Eichmann in Jerusalem"controversy. Arendt, one of the greatest political theorists of the 20th century, wrote about the trial of Adolf Eichmann for the New Yorker. She wound up being accused of excusing Eichmann for his actions and blaming the Jews for their own slaughter.

"Hannah Arendt" is a well-made film,and the cast is first-rate. Barbara Sukowa, who stars as Arendt, has the challenge of portraying a thinker as she is working out her thinking about a very difficult subject. She does an excellent job.

I'd like to recommend it, but then again I'm not sure who the potential audience might be. I don't know that there are all that many people interested in the Arendt/Eichmann controversy. And this isn't a movie for those who are in the anti-Arendt camp. Nor does it do a good job of explaining why the controversy was misguided. Arendt experts will probably take issue with this or that historical point, or the failure to properly convey particular theoretical points. I either didn't notice or didn't care.

On to the politics, or in this case, the intersection of the political world and the world of political theory. The controversy surrounding Arendt's report on the trial is interesting because it represents a collision of the world of thought and the world of action, but also because Arendt herself was the world of thought's chief advocate of the world of action. I don't think the movie quite captured this tension. It does, however, show that those who believe Arendt exonerated Eichmann and blamed the Jews not only thoroughly misunderstand what she was saying, but have no interest in understanding her. It also captures some of how Arendt's style was central to her side of the story. She wrote (at least as I read her) as if her concepts would be self-evident to fair-minded readers. I don't think too many readers agree.

My only issue with the movie is the treatment of the young Arendt's affair with the philosopher Martin Heidegger. The film makes the ill-fated relationship, which was poisoned by Heidegger's turn toward Nazism, too prominent. It diminishes Arendt's brilliance to imply that her views were intensely formed by her personal experience.

For all that, "Hannah Arendt" is as good a portrait as you're going to see of a work of political theory and of a political theorist.

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