Hannah Arendt (The movie): A review

Last week, as I was revisiting the discussion between Melissa Harris-Perry and bell hooks at the New School*, I remembered my academic crush on The New School as a school in which a lot of my favourite thinkers, writers and artists have taught/teach and whose research I admire.

Which, in turn, reminded me about the Hannah Arendt film released here last year, directed by Margarethe von Trotta, and centred around her time at the New School.
Now, I think Hannah Arendt is amazing.
Her books The Origins of Totalitarianism and The Human Condition are crucial, her take on Rosa Luxembourg is heartwarming and my copy of The Portable Hannah Arendt is tattered with love and much use. The reports she made about the extraordinary trials in Jerusalem of Adolf Eichmann were so sensational and provoked vital critical thinking about genocide, sovereignty, international law and crimes against humanity.
She has problematic views too. Her take on the Little Rock Nine and desegregation of education the US is one I categorically reject, and her complicity in the occupation of Palestine through her work with Youth Aliya disturbs me.

Yet her complexity and her writing (as a whole) is a formidable influence on my work, thinking and inevitably on the work of people I admire, too.
So it was with a bit of trepidation that I approached the film. 
Much in the same way films about Frida Kahlo, Sylvia Plath and Truman Capote have been unsatisfying*, I didn’t want to witness a degrading, thin or limiting rendition of someone who is complex. Especially not someone who I admire and to whom I think the world needs to pay attention. 

There is always the threat that, in attempting to funnel their life into a story of 120 minutes within the genre of contemporary filmmaking , it will reduce them to an afterthought and undermine the work they’ve done. Especially as the history of mainstream cinema banks on that kind of entertaining reduction and revisionism: palatable, easily distributable and marketable.
As much as I enjoyed the film, sadly, I think that’s what has happened to the character of Hannah Arendt in this film.
Given that Arendt is a writer and theortician, I imagine it is not easy to depict this kind of life in film.  
So the obvious way through is to focus on the drama – the fracas she caused with her New Yorker report from 1961, Eichmann in Jersualem (still available on the New Yorker website!).

So the film centred around her trip to Israel for the trials, her discussions about the trials and theories of evil, justice and humanity, the writing of those articles and the aftermath of the publishing.

It was the beginning of discussion about the role of law, who gets to punish, about the role of media/journalism in such a massive undertaking.

And given that, I think the title should have been Hannah in Jerusalem, or something along those lines – something that was in line with the story and trajectory of the film. By its broad title, it suggests a story about her entirety, or at least the whole of her career.

The film did manage to focus a little on her relationships with students, her work with Karl Jaspers and Youth Aliya and other writers/acedemics at the time, but it primarily focused on her relationship with her bloody husband!
Just like every other biopic about women in the arts and letters.

Frida was about Diego, Sylvia was about Ted and Hannah Arendt was about Heinrich (and/or Martin Heidegger). In fact, the only recent film I have seen about an influencial woman that wasn’t about her husband, was The Iron Lady about Margaret Thatcher. Which was about her debilitating illness instead. Not to degrade that, mind, but for god’s sake can we have a film about the breadth of an intelligent woman’s life!
With those criticisms out of the way, I was still chuffed to see a political theorist in film –  a female academic on film*: her strong and opinionate character, the smoking (lordy – she didn’t stop!), her friendship with author Mary McCarthy and a bit of her connection with Heidegger. To see on-screen discussion of the theories of Heidegger and the difficulty in divorcing his excellent theory work from his decision to stay in the Nazi Party – that was welcome, and perpetuated in similar grey areas about Arendt and her complicity (although not necessarily teased out).

And, as I mentioned, I appreciated seeing the New School as a kind of character, too  – the subplot of their flip-flopping sycophancy and subsequent rejection of their controversial ‘prized lecturer’.  Reminiscent of the character of Harvard University in The Social Network, the university and its influence on those who influence is an interesting side-note.


I am not sure how good a film this is if you don’t know who Hannah Arendt is.
This is a shame, because film is oftentimes an opportunity to also educate or intrigue people who may be otherwise in the dark. 
But if you do know about Arendt and her work, it is still worthwhile seeing for a kind of curiosity, fondness or revisiting her written work. And perhaps for generating resolve towards better scriptwriting about intelligent women of influence.

*when i say revisiting, i mean clapping my hands gleefully and yahooing around the house like a madwoman.

* geez – why are all these films just their names? how about ‘zapatista in surrealism’ or ‘in the blue hours’ or ‘the love of in cold blood’. OK, Im terrible with titles, but c’mon – single word names?
* How low is the bar, ladies?

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