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Margarethe von Trotta on Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt

The most evocative and engrossing picture this writer has ever encountered about the life and times of a thinker is Hannah Arendt, German filmmaker and actress Margarethe von Trotta’s magnificent meditation on the incendiary political theorist. Reuniting with her Vision (2009) and Rosa Luxemburg (1986) star Barbara Sukowa, the ex-Fassbinder muse has delivered a titanic and highly unusual work, a film of rare intelligence that animates the life of a protean mind in a manner that is at once spartan, highly dramatic, and incredibly timely.

Hannah Arendt focuses on the period immediately before, during and after Arendt’s famous coverage of the Adolf Eichmann trial in Jerusalem for The New Yorker, in which she coined the term the “banality of evil” (she saw Eichmann as a mediocre bureaucrat simply following orders, “terrifyingly normal,” not one of history’s great monsters and maybe not even an anti-Semite) and suggested that collaboration on the part of key members of the European Jewish leadership allowed the death toll to rise.

In the wake of this, she received death threats, was physically harassed by the Israeli government, was asked to resign by The New School, where she taught, and was ridiculed by the Norman Podheretz crowd at Commentary (“violates everything we know about the Nature of Man,” he wrote). She was also promptly ostracized by many in her own community, including her longtime friends Hans Jonas and Kurt Blumenfeld, the latter with whom she had escaped capture by the Nazis, the former her friend and fellow Heidegger pupil, who turned on her just as he had their teacher because of the apolitical man’s half-hearted Nazism (she however, had been Heidegger lover and sought to understand him where others had cast him to damnation).

Impeccably crafted on every conceivable level, as committed to the world of ideas and unwilling to yield to ignorance and blood lust as its title character, Hannah Arendt is an important film, one which rejects the simplistic visions of a complex, morally dubious world that so many would foist upon us. It shows how quickly a search for justice and closure can turn into hysteria and an insatiable desire for revenge. What you see in this film is the beginning of the terrifying world we live in today, one in which vengeance and tribalism are as important factors on the world stage as ever before.

Margarethe Von Trotta
Margarethe Von Trotta

Filmmaker: What sparked your interest in Hannah Arendt as a thinker and as a potential subject for a biopic? Is this something you’ve been thinking about for a long time or did the opportunity come through someone else?

Von Trotta: It was for a long time, yes, because when we had the first idea that was 10 years ago. So to get the money together, to write the script first, was a long time and a long story. If the focus was on the love story between Arendt and Heidegger that would sell much easier; a love story between a Nazi and Jewish girl, that would have been attractive to many people but we didn’t want that. The idea from the beginning was not even mine. I would not have been able to do a film about a thinker [on my own]. But after I immediately asked Pam [Katz] if she could imagine that we write a script together and she was very much enthusiastic. And so in a certain way she pushed me to do it. Because for a writer, it’s so much more easy to imagine that you could do it than for a filmmaker. So she had to push me and take me along with her.

Filmmaker: Was this writing process more difficult because it was about a complex historical figure? There’s only so much that one can dramatize in one film about Hannah and her writing, I imagine.

Von Trotta: Oh it was much more difficult, sure; if you can invent everything it’s always much more easier. Here we had a story and a woman, and a really important and intelligent woman. So we had the feeling that we had to be very responsible for her and that we didn’t minimize her.

Filmmaker: Did you feel hemmed in by the historical record?

Von Trotta: In a way, for me it’s a sort of feeling like I’m getting up there my own story, the one I’m always telling about Germany. When you remember the film about [Rosa] Luxembourg in the middle of the war in Berlin, it’s following a line. Once in my life, a long time ago, I said when I was struck to make films that I would like the idea of portraying the whole last century, from the beginning. I didn’t do all of it, but I did several films to portray this century and I wrote my last film about this period.

Filmmaker: What did you learn about her that most surprised you?

Von Trotta: In the beginning I was very afraid of her and I thought she might be arrogant like so many people thought; I always thought that I had to love somebody I wanted to portray. But here I saw she was so [different] from me and I couldn’t understand and I really had to approach it in a very slow way. And in the end now I love her. That was the procedure I had to go through to lose my fear and then to look a little bit closer. We had to go through so much correspondence and there were some people still who knew her in New York and they spoke about her so warm-heartedly so I understood that she was just everything. She could be arrogant but she could be very caring and warm-hearted too, and she was a loving woman also. She was a very complex character, and I had to study her really very closely to understand the complexity of her, and only complexities are interesting to me.

Filmmaker: You’ve worked with Barbara Sukowa many times; what specifically about her as an actress seemed right for this particular role?

Von Trotta: It seemed destiny that they should come together. It’s all her intellect and her emotional spirit and she did it so wonderfully, and she read everything that I read before. She’s so precise in her preparation that I knew from the beginning it must be her otherwise I wouldn’t have done the film because I can trust her totally. I trust her so much and she trusts me; six films we’ve done together. That was like taking each other by hand and going through a tunnel together: you are very fearful from the beginning, we didn’t know if the film would come out and be successful or right, so it was like an adventure, intellectual but also in friendship to get through this invisible space to visibility.

Filmmaker: Do you have a certain shorthand when you work with her now? Is there an ease in terms of the ways you communicate with her as a director?

Von Trotta: We speak a lot before the film starts, and she reads everything more or less we wrote and we read, Pam and me. She was with a professor of philosophy, she tried to get this terrible German accent. We agreed that we had to do it as much as Hannah has it because that would have been a quasi-caricature and we didn’t want to make a caricature. To get into this accent she started three months before shooting to speak to everybody with this accent and her husband and her friends got crazy because it was so ugly. But when we started to shoot, it came out naturally for her. She is the most intelligent actress I know, so you can discuss with her literature and politics and everything.

Filmmaker: It’s curious because one of the things I find in film that is so difficult to do is to dramatize the life of a writer and to make the act of writing and the act of thinking that goes into writing emotionally engaging. And you do it superbly in this film. Was that a concern for you before you made the film, and how did you figure that out?

Von Trotta: Absolutely. Yes, we had two things. We had one description of her thinking position from an article: she was lying down and looking up to the ceiling, always closed eyes, smoking also, and you could feel and see that she was thinking and that you should not disturb her because everybody knew that she was thinking. So two or three times I showed [her in this position] in the film, at the beginning and middle and end. And then she sees Eichmann and she’s observing him. As she’s observing him, you can see she’s making up her mind [how] to describe him, and as a spectator seeing the material and the real Eichmann you can follow her because you can get the same feeling of the same impression she has looking at him. And so you are already together in the process of observing and trying to understand or describe. Then when she comes back you are already in this process as a spectator, and therefore you can follow her much better.

Filmmaker: Did you ever consider having an actor play Eichmann? You very seamlessly use the archival footage and it’s absolutely the right choice, but it is highly unorthodox.

Von Trotta: No, no. For me it was absolutely necessary because an actor, he could have been brilliant, but you would have seen only his brilliance as an actor and you would say, “Oh yes, now he’s really perfect.” But this bureaucratic nobody, as he says, you can get only from Eichmann himself. And so for me from the beginning it was necessary to get this material. And we had the fortune to get it from the archives. And so since he was a total smoker, and in the courtroom it was forbidden to smoke, she said he was much more in the press room because he could smoke. They in the press room could see it immediately and therefore it was not a question of style anymore because if she had been only in the courtroom I couldn’t put the material in, but because they all saw this second material it was natural.

Filmmaker: You said you thought it would be easier to write about her relationship with Heidegger. But you do use her relationship with Heidegger as a means of talking about her own conflict as to how her reputation has been tarred as compared to his.

Von Trotta: I use him only as a third figure of thinking because she says that Eichmann was unable to think, that he was not stupid but he was unable to think. She is a thinker and she says in the end that thinking might protect us from catastrophes. And then there’s a third person, Heidegger, who is a master of thinking and from whom she learned to think. His thinking didn’t protect him from doing the wrong choice, and that’s really interesting.

Filmmaker: Do you think that that suggests that thinking cannot protect us in the way that she would like to suggest it can and that there’s an unresolvable ambivalence there?

Von Trotta: I am also an idealist in a certain way, I hope that thinking with your own mind and your own eyes looking to your world and your own willingness to understand  — because she always said, “I want to understand,” that was one of her most important sentences — might protect you. But it’s not certain. And so, in a certain way, she is still coming from Kant, from the idealism of Kant, to hope or to believe that thinking will really help you. But it’s my hope too. I am on her side. Only that looking at Heidegger, he was not this perfect person of thinking.

Filmmaker: I’m curious about the reaction to the film. We live in a very reactionary time politically and many of the fears and axieties that this film suggests were just being being opened by the spectre of the Eichmann trial are still very much with us today. Have you experienced any objections to the way that you see Arendt and the way that she saw Eichmann?

Von Trotta: I have heard that she misunderstood him and he was much more an actor and he made up his acting at the trial. Many think that he was much more active than he seemed to be, [which is] a new consideration from two years ago. When we wrote our script, I didn’t know about that. Maybe that he undermined a little bit his importance, but I think that he was unable to think himself, that he gave up this possibility to understand the world on his own, that is for sure. You hear him speaking in German, and he is so unable to really [speak] individual sentences. He is only speaking in clichés. I can’t criticize him because I am not perfect in English, but he was German, and he could not end a sentence grammatically right and spoke in clichés and bureacratisms. You never feel him as an individual or as a real person. That he couldn’t make up.

Filmmaker: I’m also curious about how the film has changed for you personally. I often find that when I’m interviewing filmmakers they set out to make something that they think means one thing and by the time that they’re finished it means something different to them, or they think that the meanings the audience gets from the film is something very different from what they intended. When you look at the film now is it very similar to what you imagined 10 years ago?

Von Trotta: No, 10 years ago I still thought we had to tell much more about her life, to start with the [start] of her [relationship] with Heidegger and going on to her death. Only after we reflected about what can be told in the film and be understood — that it would just be a jump from one thing to another — [was it] that we decided to concentrate on these four years. So that was already a big change. And I didn’t know when I wrote it in the script or re-wrote it that this black-and-white material [of Eichmann] together with her and filming her would function so well. I didn’t do it for nothing, it was clear that for me I had to put it in, that it was functioning so well, that a spectator can come to the same [conclusion] observing this man. That was my wish, but I couldn’t think that could happen. And also that you can love her, you can criticize her — sure, there are still people who criticize her banality of evil and her not taking Eichmann as a monster or speaking about Jewish leaders in the way she does — but you can also love her.

Filmmaker: I certainly did, I found myself swept up in her tale and empathizing with her courage.

Von Trotta: That is always the thing about courageous people, that they don’t see themselves as that courageous. That is looking from outside. Often people are saying to me, “You’re so courageous,” and I never felt myself courageous. You have to do certain things, you have to write certain things, you have to express certain things, but I never think of myself that I’m courageous and I think for Hannah it was the same. Being a thinking person, to look very closely and then to make up a theory or to make up an explanation. And she didn’t expect that people would react with so much anger because she expected that people would be going with her own thinking, that she could take that and they would go with her. The reaction was so totally different from what she was expecting, and that came from her being so natural in telling the truth.

Filmmaker: I think that comes out in the film at her shot at the response, she seems so utterly befuddled that people would not respond the way she did.

Von Trotta: You see that in the trial, she came from Europe in the 20s, people were already for polemics, they were used to it. And so in the trial when they are sitting together and discussing really heavily, that is so natural, that is life, and so discussion for her is something human. And that other people are so afraid of it and taking it for aggression, she couldn’t understand or couldn’t accept [that]. And afterwards she knew that it was like that. It was a shock for her.

Filmmaker: I’m curious, was there any point in the film that you struggled with in the editing given that she lived such a rich life, and you did go back in time and examine her life with Heidegger to a degree?

Von Trotta: There was a whole period I had to cut out in the real-life story after the accident of her husband and coming to the hospital and then coming home. Immediately afterwards she had a car accident and she was really very [injured]. And was also in the hospital and it looked very bad, her husband said, she looked like Picasso a little bit. So that was a period we had in the film and then I took it out because it took away too much attention from the Eichmann [trial], because people are then in this moment and they want to know how it goes on. And so this material we only put it on the DVD as complement to the material but not in the film. I was a little bit unhappy because they were wonderful scenes. But I had to cut it out.

Filmmaker: Where does this film sit for you when considering your entire filmography?

Von Trotta: I’m not aware because so many people now are saying it’s my best film and I’m always reacting a little bit how, “No, I did so many other films that are good too, why must this be my best film?” I didn’t wait for that no, I didn’t even know that it was good. It was only when I saw the reaction… we showed it for the first time at the Toronto Film Festival and the film theater was 200 seats and it was fantastic. At the end we got a standing ovation, and it was so moving and so emotional. I could feel that people felt something, and that gave me [a sense that] okay, perhaps it was not so bad. But until this moment I didn’t know. I have a very difficult opinion of myself. I’m never very sure that I did the right thing. I know I must do something and I do it and in a way it’s courage, but the other way I’m always doubting. It’s a very European way of being, to doubt.

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