As a rule, journalists are never as interesting as what they write about, and if they are, they should find a better story. Perhaps that's true of Hannah Arendt, German director Margarethe von Trotta's drama about the influential German-American political theorist. Arendt (Barbara Sukowa) covered the 1960 trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem for The New Yorker and then wrote a book about it, and one element of the conclusions she drew provoked a blitzkrieg of angry responses.
Arendt's insights on Eichmann led her to coin the phrase "the banality of evil" when she realized that "the unspeakable horror of the deeds" conflicted with "the mediocrity of the man." This line of thinking got her in trouble when she concluded that the Holocaust was not as much about anti-Semitism as it was about power and bureaucracy. She doesn't seem to acknowledge that it could have been about both, and she further complicates her life when she comments on Jewish leaders' acquiescence in Nazi Germany. When she finally says her famous phrase — in a classroom lecture — it's the dramatic high point, sort of like when Hamlet says "to be" etc., etc.
One character in Hannah Arendt says that the youth of today (i.e. 1960) don't want to remember their past, and that a trial like Eichmann's can educate them. So can a film like von Trotta's. Still, to enjoy it, you need to like your drama slow and talky: Even the trial, which is more about the Holocaust than what Eichmann himself did, has nothing new to say in the copious canon of Holocaust cinema.
Von Trotta — who first worked with Sukowa in Marianne and Julianne (1981) — presents the trial by seamlessly mixing color scenes that she filmed with black-and-white historic footage of Eichmann testifying, a technique that underscores just how much of a bureaucratic stiff he was. "An oath is an oath," he says, explaining why he blankly followed orders, and why he saw no conflict between duty and conscience.
Sukowa has grown from beautiful in her youth to handsome in her seniority, and her leathery voice gives the chain-smoking Hannah an air of wizened wisdom. There are plenty of debates between Hannah and her friends on weighty issues, and occasionally tempers flare. But only occasionally, for Hannah Arendt is mostly an edifying lecture and stroll through some intellectual history worth remembering, presented at a pace that suits its mature characters and creators.