Befehl ist Befehl. Almost seventy years after some of the most heinous crimes against humanity in history, this most banal of Nazi excuses is still sometimes used mockingly when someone tries to dodge responsibility. But what if that unspeakable evil was rooted precisely in the banality of a society and a system that was upheld by a strong belief in rules and regulations?
This was exactly what German-born philosopher Hannah Arendt, herself Jewish, proposed in a series of articles in The New Yorker in 1961, in which she reported for the magazine on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the top-ranking SS officers during the war and considered one of the architects of the Holocaust. Coining the term “the banality of evil” (also the subtitle of a book she wrote based on her articles), Arendt contended that Eichmann was not the psychopath that the world saw in him, but a bureaucrat whose ‘evil’ sprung from obeying orders without thinking through the consequences of his actions, instead conforming to a mass opinion and thus, either consciously or unconsciously, appeasing his own conscience.
Director Margarethe von Trotta (perhaps best known for Rosa Luxemburg) selects mainly this period in the life and career of Arendt to paint the portrait of an insightful but somewhat tactless woman whose constant struggle to identify the origin of evil made her the center of controversy on more than one occasion. Played by Barbara Sukowa (her fourth collaboration with Von Trotta in her long career, including the aforementioned Rosa Luxemburg) with just the right amount of unworldliness to place Arendt’s lack of empathy in her approach to the philosophical questions underlying the trial of one of the biggest war criminals in history, Arendt faces a tsunami of criticism when her articles are finally published. This is not only because of her conclusion about Eichmann being a clown more than a monster, but also her assertion that an important role in the destruction of their own people was played by the so-called Judenräte, administrative bodies made up of Jewish leaders, required to assist the Nazi regime in the registration and deportation of Jews. While Arendt may have had a point, on an emotional level the criticism is certainly understandable, and it is a flaw of Von Trotta’s film that this aspect is underexposed. Arendt’s opponents are portrayed as one-dimensional blowhards, without giving much explanation of why they are so outraged, pitting them in the cinematic cliché of ‘good guy vs. bad guy’ instead of opting for a more nuanced view on the matter.
But it’s not the only flaw of the film, a rather dry affair that takes a mighty long while to get to the dramatic meat of the story, which is the controversy that Arendt’s work causes. And even then, the emphasis laid on her take on the Jewish leadership during the war, and the resulting criticism of that position, almost renders Arendt’s thoughts on Eichmann insignificant in the turmoil over her work. The accusation of the Judenräte is the main point of contention, and Eichmann’s portrayal by Arendt as a thoughtless clerk is barely touched upon. This lessens the impact of the sequences earlier in the film, in which Arendt follows the trial on a monitor from the pressroom in Jerusalem. This setup, historically accurate, allows Von Trotta to use archive material of the Eichmann hearings in the film, which effectively underline Arendt’s point as we see the man bumbling through his remarks in officialese and stock answers. Eichmann’s rather weaselly appearance contrasts with his image as a monster, strengthening Arendt’s later hypothesis. By abandoning this and focusing on the question of the role of the Jewish leadership, Von Trotta undermines her own film.
The film gets stuck in too much typical biopic material anyway, painting a rosy picture of Arendt by emphasizing her strong relationship with her husband (philosopher and poet Heinrich Blücher, played by Axel Milberg), her warmth towards her assistant Lotte (Julia Jentsch, of Sophie Scholl fame) and her best friend Mary (a one-note but rather fun part by Janet McTeer), and using flashbacks to her relationship with the philosopher Martin Heidegger (himself a supporter of the Nazi party), which seem to be included only to assure us that yes, Arendt hated the Nazis too.
All of this material makes the second act drag on needlessly and move forward rather aimlessly, so when it finally comes to publication of the articles and the subsequent criticism, it almost feels like a tacked-on afterthought, while this should actually be the most interesting and fleshed-out part of the film. Combined with an at times clumsy mise-en-scene and cinematography choices that make little sense (slow zooms that are there for no apparent reason, for instance), one cannot help but feel that this is a missed opportunity to make a film that digs deeper into the fundamental points that Hannah Arendt touches upon, fundamental questions that would have juxtaposed the rational (Arendt) with the emotional (her opponents who feel offended), leading to a more interesting discourse about what evil is and how to approach it. Now we are left with a half-baked biopic that rarely goes beyond the surface into intellectual depths and shies away from acknowledging the controversy, a film that is only held together by a strong central performance by Sukowa and impressive period work by the art department.