Hannah Arendt was the Jewish-German emigre philosopher and theorist who would become most famous for coining the term “the banality of evil” to refer to Nazi figures such as Adolf Eichmann, who could take a conscience-free, bureaucratic view of sending Jews to the gas chambers. This biopic by German director Margarethe von Trotta, with Barbara Sukowa in the title role, focuses on the period in which Arendt was covering the Eichmann trial for The New Yorker magazine, and the controversy her piece caused: Many took issue with Arendt’s description of Eichmann as a disturbingly ordinary man, not a monster, and how she also laid a certain amount of blame at the hands of European Jewish leaders for their role in facilitating the roundups of their communities.
Sukowa effectively communicates Arendt’s fierce independence — which at times borders on arrogance — while also showing her softer, domestic side with her academic husband Heinrich (Axel Milberg). But the film also displays the difficulty of trying to dramatize intellectuals: A lot of it comes off as didactic, broken up only by pensive chain-smoking. Arendt’s controversy in academic circles also seems a tempest in a teapot when held up next to the magnitude of the Holocaust itself; a wider view of her eventful life may have been better advised.