The daring ideas about the banality of Nazi evil advanced by political philosopher Hannah Arendt receive a distinctly non-daring treatment in director Margarethe von Trotta’s latest film study of great women. Unlike her previous film, “Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen,” Von Trotta’s Arendt biopic feels like a movie stuck in another era, stolid and rote, more of an outline for a dramatic treatment than the real thing. This is unfortunate, since Arendt’s notions deserve constant renewal and discussion, though this attempt won’t travel much beyond prime Euro markets.
The pic’s opening moments comprise its sole action, per se, with Israel’s Mossad secret service snatching Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann from his hideout in Buenos Aires, though this specific information only becomes apparent in scenes after the introduction of Arendt (Barbara Sukowa) living in happy exile in New York with husband Heinrich Blucher (Axel Milberg).
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News of the abduction and planned trial in Jerusalem compels Arendt to pitch the New Yorker magazine on a long report, a feather in the prestigious cap of editor William Shawn (Nicholas Woodeson), given that Arendt is already a giant intellectual figure, thanks to her 1951 masterpiece of 20th history, “The Origins of Totalitarianism.” Old friend and fellow exile Hans Jonas (Ulrich Noethen) discourages Arendt from returning to the hotbed issues of the Holocaust, while good pal and novelist Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer, in the movie’s only energetic, wit-inflected and magnetic performance) cheers her on.
More compelling than the sight of Arendt in the pressroom for the Eichmann trial is the plentiful and seldom-seen black-and-white television footage of the trial itself, crucially containing many closeup shots of the accused — who does, indeed, look like “a nobody,” as Arendt comments to her Jerusalem companion, Kurt Blumenfeld (Michael Degen). From this observation, Arendt develops her thesis that Eichmann allowed himself to follow the most heinous orders because he denied the possibility of thinking for himself.
Arendt’s text arrives on Shawn’s desk, but he worries that her observation that leading European Jewish leaders became compliant with the Nazis — while accurately reflecting testimony in the trial — could set off a firestorm. Predictably, it does, and the Sturm und Drang over the controversy consumes much of the lumbering film’s second half.
As rich an intellectual field as the pic plows, Von Trotta, with screenwriter Pam Katz, can’t manage to make it exciting onscreen, compounding the problems with English dialogue delivered so awkwardly that it becomes the movie’s unintended comic motif. Sukowa, a strong and lean performer, is provided a giant character but a parched role that lacks a heartbeat. Milberg and Julia Jentsch as Arendt’s loyal secretary give needed human touches amid the woodenness.
The pic’s general look is dim and drab, though Frauke Firl’s fine early 1960s costumes are cosmopolitan to a tee.