Friday, September 14, 2012

Showing Thinking: Hannah Arendt

"She is the only one I can observe thinking," commented director Margarethe von Trotta in response to a question about the compelling casting of Barbara Sukowa in the title role of her film Hannah Arendt. And indeed, this is a film not just about a thinker - one of the century's great political theorists - but more specifically about thinking as an activity, a verb. There are fantastic scenes in which Arendt - who in real life spent a lot of time thinking and writing about thinking and the unthinkable, but also about types of action and the relation between thought and deed - defends the value of thinking, having sought out Heidegger early in her life as someone who would "teach her to think." And a central point in Arendt famous New Yorker articles about the Eichmann trial, often buried under the sound bytes about the "banality of evil," is that this man, having lost any relationship to himself and essentially given up his subjectivity along with his conscience under the Nazis, was fundamentally unable to think - and hence, as Trotta has Arendt say in the film, incapable of moral judgments. Tackling these issues and staging them in various conversations, phone calls, lectures that occupied Arendt during the years leading up to, and in the aftermath of the articles that would subsequently appear in book form as Eichmann in Jerusalem, the film succeeds in also making its audience think: think through the opposing sides, that is, of Hannah Arendt's principled and reflexive stance as articulated in her writings on the one hand, and her many detractors (including some of he closest friends at the time) who accused her of blaming the victims of the Holocaust when she implicated Jewish organizations and the "kapos" of the ghettos and camps for their complicity. The film certainly grants both sides their due and doesn't resolve the debates for the viewer, but, being the biopic that it is, it does show the events almost exclusively from Arendt's point of view, thus inevitably aligning the spectator with her increasingly embattled plight; Sukowa's fantastic acting plays a key part in drawing our sympathies in this sense.
The role that she acts in, however, does demand of her to perform the act of thinking a lot, and here lie the limits of what is aesthetically a rather conventional film: documentary footage of the Eichmann trial is intercut with slow panning shots of Sukowa/Arendt as she takes it all in and begins formulating he thoughts in her head, and although Trotta stops short of actually giving us those thoughts in voice-over, we do hear fragments of the witness statements and Eichmann's own voice on the soundtrack as the camera zooms in on Sukowa's face back in New York.
At the Q&A, someone asked the interestingly paired question, "why so many cigarettes and why so little Heidegger?" While I found there to be plenty of Heidegger for my taste (though I was tickled by Trotta's response that Heidegger would have been too much melodrama in the way of the serious stuff - this from the director of some of the New German Cinema's most unabashed melodramas...), the cigarettes were more than just the markers of authenticity as which the director explained them: they were crutches for visualizing deep thinking, and hackneyed as such. Although the movie brings Arendt to life in lots of interesting ways - not least in her role, together with Mary McCarthy and slightly before Susan Sontag, as one of the very few women in the influential New York Intellectual circles of the time - it would have had to find some bolder aesthetic solutions for really showing, rather than just telling us about, its vital and still timely topic: thought in action. 

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