"Philosophers don't write to a deadline" and "thinking is a lonely thing" - both are utterly true, and both are probably the most unlikely subjects for a feature film ever. Yet, Margarethe von Trotta's tale of the period during which German Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt followed the trial of SS official Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, and wrote her (now famous, then infamous) essay on the banality of evil, is a surprisingly gripping film. All the more so because there's really nothing to it other than people thinking, talking, debating (sometimes passionately) opinions. There is not even any pretense of Hannah Arendt being a highly aesthetic effort - not that we would expect that from the veteran German director anyway, blunt and straight-forward as Ms. von Trotta can be.

     And that is probably why this rather blunt and straight-forward not-quite-biopic - an insightful look into "a life of the mind" and how that intersects the real life in the real world - is so affecting. Where Arendt herself compartmentalized - or tried to compartmentalize - separately public and personal spheres, work and life, the film refuses to do so; in point of fact, it drives down the point that Arendt paid a heavy price for that compartmentalization, and that behind the frighteningly intelligent mind was a real person, a human being with emotions, desires and needs. Hannah Arendt is both about her groundbreaking insight into the darkness that lives inside each person, and about her inability to understand how the divulging of said insight would affect her and those around her. Her New Yorker pieces and their release as a book threw into disarray the tight-knit bonds she had built with her friends, and, no matter how hard she tried, she simply could not separate work and life as she would want.

     Much helped by Barbara Sukowa's commanding, magisterial performance as Arendt and by a strong supporting cast, Ms. Von Trotta and her attentive DP Caroline Champetier start the film in a diffuse half-light that gradually becomes crisper, more distinct, as the shades are lifted and the worlds of the mind and the body are joined. There's an extraordinary sense of period dripping from Volker Schaefer's production design and Frauke Firl's costumes, perfectly recapturing that golden post-WWII moment of New York academia, offering a smart contrast between its autumnal, muffled comforts and the blunt force of Arendt's thoughts. And, admittedly, that period feel may suggest some sort of nostalgia for a period where serious thought drove the public conversation (something, alas, there is currently a dearth of). Probably, though, the Arendt fracas also falls in line with the general incomprehension serious thought often is received with as well. But, regardless, Hannah Arendt is precisely what we don't have enough of nowadays: thoughtful yet human filmmaking, fleshing out the people behind the names.

Cast: Barbara Sukowa, Axel Milberg, Janet McTeer, Julia Jentsch, Ulrich Noethen, Michael Degen, Nicholas Woodeson
Director: Margarethe von Trotta
Screenwriters: Pam Katz, Ms. Von Trotta
Cinematography: Caroline Champetier (colour, widescreen)
Music: André Morgenthaler
Designer: Volker Schaefer
Costumes: Frauke Firl
Editor: Bettina Böhler
Producers: Bettina Brokemper, Johannes Rexin (Heimatfilm in co-production with Amour Fou Luxembourg, Sophie Dulac Productions, MACT Productions, Metro Communications, ARD-Degeto, Bayerischer Rundfunk and Westdeutscher Rundfunk)
Germany/Luxembourg/France/Israel, 2012, 113 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Cinema City Alvalade 2 (Lisbon), September 26th 2013


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