For a biopic that tries to sell us on the complexity of its subject’s political theories, Margarethe von Trotta’s “Hannah Arendt” is awfully simplistic. Centered around Ms. Arendt’s unconventional “New Yorker” coverage of the Adolf Eichmann trial, the film provides a bullet-points version of her work as an intellectual during the late ’50s and early ’60s, a small but significant portion of her 25-plus year career. We’re exposed to Arendt’s infamous phrase “the banality of evil,” which posited that the atrocities of the Holocaust were a result of thoughtlessness and compliance more than radicalism, and her controversial stance that Jewish leaders’ obedience to the Nazis aided the Final Solution, but little more. In other words, the film’s summary of Arendt’s work is less detailed than Arendt’s Wikipedia page, undercutting our appreciation of her contributions — the opposite of what a proper biopic is supposed to do.
The good news is that the film is immensely entertaining thanks to its feisty lead performance, albeit in a superficial one-woman-dares-to-challenge-the-intellectual-establishment sort of way. Not being an expert on Arendt, I can’t say how much of Barbara Sukowa’s portrayal is authentic and how much is simply a riff on the renegade philosopher archetype, but she commands the screen in a way that convinces us of Arendt’s importance, even as we remain in the dark on many of the finer points of Arendt’s work. From the ferocious climax in which Arendt publicly defends her theories on Eichmann, her poster-boy for banal evil, to the silent scenes which show her thinking as a cigarette burns away between her fingers, Sukowa finds great theater in Arendt’s thought-process. This makes for a captivating rendition on the classic underdog tale, even as filmmaker von Trotta occasionally stomps on the dramatic momentum with muddled flashbacks to young Hannah’s relationship with her Nazi-affiliated professor Martin Heidegger.
Thus, whether “Hannah Arendt” is a good film depends on one’s view of whether a biopic absolutely must honor the totality of its subject’s achievements, or at least those covered during the timeframe of the plot. I tend to think that one must, so my enthusiasm for Sukowa’s superlative turn is tempered. In truth, the performance would have worked just as well had it been assigned to a fictional intellectual, as its successes have less to do with its illumination of Arendt specifically as they do with its dramatization of an individual who stands up to reject hegemonic thought. The “based on a true story” subtext, highlighted by von Trotta’s employment of real footage of the Eichmann trial, simply adds a phony sense of gravitas.