Film Preview: Hannah Arendt’s Battle for Conscience

Margarethe von Trotta’s new film is a powerful portrait of the philosopher who wrote about Eichmann in Jerusalem and the “banality of evil”

Top Stories | Gregory Weeks | February 2013

Barabara Sukowa delivers an entirely convincing portrayal of the intense but compassionate German-American philosopher Hannah Arendt (Photo: Boxfish films)

Forcing her students to think was German-American philosopher Hannah Arendt’s passion. Still, she had no idea how bitterly her forceful questioning of assumptions during the trial of Holocaust mastermind Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961 would bring her into conflict – not only with her academic teaching colleagues at American universities – but also with Holocaust survivors, the young Jewish state of Israel, and the public at large.

The film Hannah Arendt explores the two-year period in Arendt’s life from 1960 to 1961 in which she wrote a series of five articles for The New Yorker magazine about the capture and trial of former SS-Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann. These articles were later published in expanded form in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963). Arendt’s second husband Heinrich Blücher (Axel Milberg) and her friends, novelist Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer) and her assistant Lotte Köhler (Julia Jentsch) feature prominently in the film, supporting her, and at times trying to protect her from herself amidst the turmoil of the criticisms of Eichmann in Jerusalem.


Acting on moral responsibility

The film stars German actress Barbara Sukowa as Hannah Arendt. Sukowa is known to audiences for her roles in two of director Margarethe von Trotta’s previous films, as Rosa Luxemburg (1986) and then as Hildegard von Bingen (2009).

The film begins with the May 1960 kidnapping of Eichmann by the Mossad in Argentina; then moves to Manhattan, where Arendt is living. After hearing of the Eichmann capture, Arendt takes the initiative and writes to The New Yorker, requesting to be sent to Jerusalem to cover the Eichmann trial. New Yorker editor William Shawn (brilliantly played by Nicholas Woodeson) agrees to her request.

Hannah Arendt was filmed in all the original locations, and the film benefits from this attention to detail, especially in the Jerusalem scenes. In addition, the use of period automobiles and buses as well as the carefully selected period furniture for Arendt’s apartment in New York make the film authentic. The use of original footage from the Eichmann trail playing on Arendt’s television set completes a near perfect illusion.

The experience of seeing Eichmann on trial radically changed Arendt’s life. What she saw was a "desk perpetrator". He himself did not physically murder a single human being, but he was responsible for giving the orders to do so and carrying out the organisational activities that led to the deaths of millions. For Arendt, Eichmann’s deeds were crimes not simply against Jews but "crimes against humanity". Arendt’s opponents accused her of arrogance and of being soft on Eichmann, but it was more realistic that her very real sense of moral responsibility that led her to try to understand how seemingly normal people like Eichmann could commit crimes of such extraordinary evil.

Arendt’s repeated attempts to force a discussion of how people tell right from wrong made her a renowned political theorist, and the target of vitriolic hatred by those who saw her reporting as a defense of Eichmann’s deeds. Further, her criticisms of the Jewish councils that were tasked with assisting Eichmann as they murdered the Jews led to angry letters and phone calls from readers, one even going so far as to call her a "Nazi whore."

Arendt saw what she wrote as an analysis of the "thoughtlessness" of evil people, of those who only obeyed orders and assumed no responsibility whatsoever for their actions. Describing Eichmann’s specific brand of evil as "banal" was a radical act by Arendt, forcing a review of Jewish complicity and the motives of the perpetrators in ways that made them extremely uncomfortable.

Hannah Arendt’s stormy romantic relationship with her philosophy professor at the University of Marburg, Martin Heidegger (Klaus Pohl), is profiled in flashback scenes in the film. Portraying Heidegger as the "man who taught Arendt to think," it unfortunately ignores her equally important dissertation supervisor, the philosopher Karl Jaspers, later to become famous as the author of The Question of German Guilt (1947) in which he argued that Germans could only be guilty for the Holocaust as individuals. Certainly, Jaspers had a huge influence in Arendt’s life after her breakup with Heidegger. As Arendt says in the film, when asked about the relationship with Heidegger, "There are some things that are stronger than a single human being."


Asking the hard questions

A true portrait of the era, this fine film makes clear why Hannah Arendt was one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt placed the Third Reich in the context of Western civilization. In Eichmann in Jerusalem, she showed the inconsistency between what the public perceived as evil and what actually constituted evil. It was a moral certainty in the aftermath of the Holocaust that was radically refreshing for some and deeply disturbing for others. Opinions diverge to this day, but Arendt’s progressive thinking made her a role model for those who ask difficult and disquieting questions.

Hannah Arendt is a fascinating production. It is a tour de force of Arendt’s life and thinking that is both well-conceived and compelling.

It is, in short, a film worth seeing and reflecting upon. Hannah Arendt opens in theatres on 22 February.


Hannah Arendt, website:

Apollo - Das Kino, 6., Gumpendorfer Straße 63

22-23 Feb. (18:15, 20:30), 24.02 (18:15, 20:45), 25-26.02 (18:30, 20:45), 27.02 (18:45, 20:45), 28.02 (20:45)

Cine Center, 1., Fleischmarkt 6

22-23 Feb. (18:00, 20:15), 24.02 (17:15, 20:00), 25-28.02 (18:00, 20:15)

Village Cinemas Wien, 3., Landstraßer Hauptstraße 2a

22-28 Feb. (16:00, 18:15, 20:30)

Votiv Kino, 9., Währinger Straße 12

22-23 Feb. (16:00, 18:15, 20:30); 24-28 (18:15, 20:30)

More showtimes available at:

Hannah Arendt Papers at the U.S. Library of Congress:


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