Barbara Sukowa is excellent as the title character in "Hannah Arendt," a film about a writer whose post-Nazi-era theory about "the banality of evil" created controversy.
The act of thinking gives rise to its own form of gripping viewing in "Hannah Arendt," a German biopic from director and co-writer Margarethe von Trotta. Brains and heart combine superbly in this portrait of the philosopher known for her theories on the "banality of evil."
Von Trotta makes films about women of conviction with strong personal character and extraordinary histories. Her protagonists have included revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg and nun-composer-philosopher Hildegard von Bingen.
While Arendt, who called herself a political theorist, may have lived a less exciting life, she proves no dullard and indeed worthy of biopic treatment.
Set mostly in the early 1960s — the days of typewriters, cigarettes and postwar healing — the film presents Arendt (Barbara Sukowa) as a 50-something German Jewish professor who escaped from Nazi-era Europe in 1941 and lives in New York with her discreetly adulterous husband, Heinrich Blucher (Axel Milberg). They share an apartment filled with books and friends who amiably squabble over politics.
The drama mostly involves Arendt's coverage of the trial of Nazi official Adolf Eichmann. Expecting to find a heinous monster in the Jerusalem courtroom, Arendt instead deems Eichmann (presented via actual black-and-white trial footage) a "nobody" who was simply following orders when overseeing the deportation of Jews. He let others think for him, Arendt writes in New Yorker magazine and in her book "Eichmann in Jerusalem."
She terms such scenarios the "banality of evil," and her assessment prompts outrage. Critics accuse her of "defending" Eichmann.
Even more divisive are her statements that Jewish leaders, in hopes of helping Jews, cooperated with the Nazis. Longtime friends abandon her. But she sticks to her beliefs.
Von Trotta isn't the crispest storyteller. Some friends and colleagues she works into Arendt's picture come off fuzzily. And flashbacks of a 1920s affair between Arendt and her then-professor Martin Heidegger (Klaus Pohl) are more distracting than enlightening.
But rare is the film that takes political talk seriously, or that contains a central character, especially a woman, who is distinguished largely by burning intellect.
Regardless of whether one agrees with Arendt, the intense consideration that goes into her views, and her steadfast belief that individuals must think for themselves, make her a significant force in times of totalitarian governments, bandwagon mentalities and blind obedience.
Sukowa, in her sixth von Trotta collaboration, is fascinating as the complicated, committed thinker, and her delivery of Arendt's climactic speech is stunning. She also has affecting intimate moments with Heinrich and friends. The latter include writer Mary McCarthy, presented sketchily but played most entertainingly by Janet McTeer.
Starring Barbara Sukowa, Axel Milberg, Janet McTeer, Klaus Pohl
Written by Margarethe von Trotta, Pam Katz
Directed by Margarethe von Trotta
Rated Not rated
Running time 1 hour, 49 minutes