The phrase “banality of evil” has been so abused over the years that it has itself grown banal. But back when Hannah Arendt coined it while covering the 1961 trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann for The New Yorker, it stirred up a controversy. Unfortunately little of that intensity comes through in Margarethe von Trotta’s faithful but dull version of the events, a film that ultimately says more about banality than evil.
Known for historical dramatizations such as the moving “The Promise” (1995), about lovers separated by the Berlin Wall, and the wrenching “Marianne and Julianne” (1981), about sisters divided by revolutionary terrorism in 1960s Germany, von Trotta excels at bringing to the big screen lived history and its impact on ordinary lives. But when it comes to major figures, such as in “Rosa Luxemburg” (1986), her film about the socialist firebrand murdered in 1919, her imagination falters.
So it goes with her treatment of Arendt. As one of the greatest political philosophers of the 20th century, Arendt adds the cinematic challenge of having to depict not just the act of thinking, but thinking about thinking. Doggedly portrayed by Barbara Sukowa (who also starred in “Luxemburg”), Arendt expresses her cogitation through that hoary device of smoking a cigarette. Distracted by this affectation, I counted at least 20 times that Arendt wrinkled her brow, stared into space, and lit up. That’s over a pack of cigarettes in less than two hours. Whatever else you might say about thinking, it is apparently hazardous to your health.
Despite this, von Trotta does evoke the academic culture of New York in the early ’60s, where Arendt found refuge in the years after “the dark times” when she escaped a French detention center just before the inmates were transferred to Nazi death camps. In accepting the New Yorker assignment, Arendt must again face that horror, countering her fears with her powers of analysis. During the trial she ponders the relentless testimony — rendered effectively by von Trotta, who mixes archival footage with reenactments — of those who survived Eichmann’s officiously organized mass murder. But more disturbing to Arendt than these accounts is Eichmann himself: Instead of a monster, she beholds a nonentity, someone who she says is capable of evil because he is incapable of thought.
This insight comes about after many cigarettes and recurrent flashbacks to her affair with her philosophy teacher, the renowned Martin Heidegger, whom she begs to teach her “how to think,” and who says things like “We think because we are thinking beings.” Later, Heidegger would disgrace himself by joining the Nazi party. The links drawn between Arendt’s theory about Eichmann, her teacher Heidegger’s teachings on the nature of thought, her love of Heidegger, and her unresolved feelings about his Nazi connection, are tantalizing, but never developed.
Also undeveloped is the real controversy in her article; people got incensed not so much because she diminished Eichmann’s culpability but because she suggested that Jews, or at least their leaders, were unwittingly complicit in their fate by cooperating with the Nazis. Von Trotta handles this loaded topic with finesse, drawing parallels between the attacks on Arendt for her article and the prosecution of Eichmann himself. Arendt even gets a visit from the Israeli secret police, recalling Eichmann’s kidnapping by Mossad in Buenos Aires seen at the beginning of the movie. Von Trotta seems to be suggesting that if Eichmann’s crime was not thinking, Arendt’s problem might be thinking too much. Given her detached treatment of such rich material, that might be von Trotta’s problem, too.