It is hard for me to ascertain how well this biopic works for viewers who have never heard of philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt and her mentor Martin Heidegger. I don’t claim a deep understanding of either’s work but did come to the film with a bit of knowledge and context, which makes the film fascinating to me.
I did not know, however, that Arendt, a German Jew, went to Paris from Germany in the wake of rising anti-Semitism and was held in Camp Gurs, a French detention camp, in 1940 before she escaped and emigrated to the United States with her husband.
With flashbacks to flesh out the story, Margarethe von Trotta’s film focuses mainly on the period of time when Arendt traveled to Israel to cover the war crimes trial of Adolf Eichmann for The New Yorker and the stormy reception of her surprising analysis of the trial and “the banality of evil” phrase she used in describing Eichmann.
Barbara Sukowa gives a terrific performance as Arendt, a character who is bold, brilliant, brave, and sometimes funny but always human. I also enjoyed the film’s insider’s view of academe in Germany during the flashbacks and in New York during the other scenes. What a pleasant surprise to see Janet McTeer as writer Mary McCarthy, colleague and stalwart friend to Arendt.
I don’t know how well the biopic works for others, as I said, but it is engaging and works well for me. It’s hard to make a film that is more about ideas than events, but this one succeeds.