Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt is the only film you’ll see this summer with the noted philosopher-historian playing “truth or dare” billiards, in a story representing a rare revisiting—in the movies, anyway—of the Eichmann trial. This, even though the war criminal’s glass booth haunts our epics: Dr. Lecter, Magneto, Loki, Silva and the rest.
The film follows a turning point in the career of Arendt (Barbara Sukowa), who traveled at The New Yorker‘s behest to observe the trial of Adolph Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961. Arendt was a German who fled her native country with her husband in 1933. She claimed she had never even seen a Nazi in the flesh, which is 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 Jerusalem, 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. As with today’s war criminals, Eichmann used passive sentences: the slippery “one” when describing how he conducted his obscene duties.
The mirror of this bland monster is a humane, lovable brave woman of middle age, facing the pressure from middle-brow New Yorkers to cast Eichmann’s life as a study of evil in the realm of good—and also to turn her back on the shame of Jewish collaboration with the Nazis. Sukowa’s inner strength as an actress mostly conquers the problem of a biopic 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 unfortunate scene-changing lines: “Israel has aged faster than you, my little Hannah.”