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.