Hannah Arendt Biopic Offers Rare Onscreen View of Political Philosophy

Movie Paints Vivid Picture of German-Jewish Émigrés

A Turbulent Life: Political philosopher Hannah Arendt is portrayed by Barbara Sukowa in Margarethe von Trotta’s new biopic.
Courtesy of Zeitgeist FIlms
A Turbulent Life: Political philosopher Hannah Arendt is portrayed by Barbara Sukowa in Margarethe von Trotta’s new biopic.

By Beate Sissenich

Published May 26, 2013, issue of June 07, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Biopics about philosophers are rare, and they favor activists over ivory-tower thinkers. The life of the mind, unless it directly shapes social action, is not easily captured in film.

Hence, Richard Attenborough’s film “Gandhi” exposed the Indian independence leader’s ideas on nonviolent struggle through his political activism, not through his writings. Likewise, Margarethe von Trotta’s cinematic portrayal of the Marxist dissident writer Rosa Luxemburg wasted little time on the latter’s considerable written output and instead explored Luxemburg’s role in the founding of organized social democracy in Poland, and later in the founding of the Communist Party in Germany, in opposition both to Russian Bolsheviks and German social democrats.

Given the challenge of translating philosophy into drama, it is understandable that Von Trotta’s latest film, about the German Jewish writer Hannah Arendt, has little to say about the political theorist’s extensive oeuvre on the nature of political action or her analysis of totalitarianism.

Instead, the film concentrates on a turbulent period in Arendt’s life, during which she came under severe attack for her reporting on Adolf Eichmann’s 1961 trial. First published as a series of essays in The New Yorker, the report was later expanded into a book under the title “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.”

The film is an engaging portrayal of a woman who did not back down in the face of massive hostility generated by her ideas. Arendt’s counterintuitive interpretation of the behavior and motivations of Holocaust perpetrators created a chasm among New York Jewish intellectuals, many of whom, like her, were German exiles.

“Hannah Arendt” is a logical continuation of von Trotta’s earlier films about women articulating perspectives in opposition to mainstream ideology; beyond “Rosa Luxemburg,” these films include “Vision,” about the medieval mystic, composer and writer Hildegard von Bingen, and “Rosenstrasse,” about a successful protest of gentile women against the incarceration of their Jewish husbands in Berlin in 1943.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.