Marguerite von Trotta's Hannah Arendt is the only film you'll see this summer with the noted philosopher/historian playing "truth or dare" billiards with Mary McCarthy (played by Janet McTeer, trying some strong-arm scene stealing). It's the first time in a long while that the movies have revisited the Eichmann trial.
This, even though the war criminal's glass booth haunts our epics, in the form of the clear bulletproof cells in which many super-villains are caged: Dr. Lecter, Magneto, Loki, Silva and the rest.
This biopic follows a turning point in the career of Arendt (Barbara Sukowa) who travelled at the New Yorker's behest to observe the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961. Arendt was a German who fled with her husband in 1933. She claimed had never even seen a Nazi in the flesh: not quite true, since she was taught by one, her mentor and perhaps lover Martin Heidegger, played by Klaus Pohl.
Not to steal the thunder of her book Eichmann in Jersualem, but Arendt's breakthrough was deducing that even if the SS Lieutenant-Colonel was the living representative of a nightmare, he was also a consummate bureaucrat. He was "no Mephistopheles," she says, during the musings that led to Arendt's irreplaceable four-word description of the spirit of the Nazis' rule.
As do today's war criminals, Eichmann used passive sentences: the slippery "one" when describing how he conducted his obscene duties. But he was all too human, griping about the inconvenience of the trial, wearing a wry half-smirk at the indignity of the questions, wiping his leaking nose with a hanky. The mirror of this bland monster is a humane, lovable, brave woman of middle age facing the pressure from the middle-brow New Yorkers she knows. She refuses to cast Eichmann's life as a common study of evil in the realm of good.
And she also refuses to ignore the shame of Jewish collaboration with the Nazis. For the most part, Sukowa's inner strength conquers the problem of a bio-pic about a person who vegetates on sofas, smokes cigarettes and stares at the ceiling. The script may have carved up too much history to chew, though—there are numerous "as you know, Bob"-isms to keep the viewer up to speed in '60s politics, as well as scene-changing lines of great unfortunateness: "Israel has aged faster than you, my little Hannah."
Not rated; 109 min.