Margarethe von Trotta looks at Hannah Arendt
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Margarethe von Trotta looks at Hannah Arendt

Eric Goldman writes and teaches about Jewish cinema. He is president of Ergo Media, a distributor of Jewish, Yiddish and Israeli film.

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Barbara Sukowa plays the title character in von Trotta’s “Hannah Arendt.” Courtesy Zeitgeist Films

In the course of interviewing film director Margarethe von Trotta, I better understood German filmmakers’ growing inclination to explore the Shoah.

Over the past 15 years, films tackling the Holocaust have been produced at an amazing pace in Germany. Since the reunification of Germany in 1990 and Germany’s internal struggle to redefine itself over the next several years, Germans have been trying to come to terms with their identity and their past. Earlier, German filmmakers had been reluctant about dealing with the Shoah for fear that their interpretation might be misunderstood. After all, how could a German filmmaker possibly make a movie about a German who saved Jews, like Spielberg did with “Schindler’s List”? In the years that followed the war, most Germans were unwilling to talk about the Holocaust, and von Trotta noted that most survivors shared that reluctance. Both Holocaust survivors and postwar Germans held back in dealing with and talking about the war, somehow wanting to protect themselves and the next generation from having to struggle with such difficult issues. There was a great deal that simply was not to be discussed.

For the survivor community that began to change in 1961, with the trial of Adolf Eichmann and the evolution has continued with the explorations of children and grandchildren of survivors, and efforts to help survivors provide testimony. In Germany, a greater awareness of and discussion about the Shoah took hold in 1979 with the national broadcast there of the television mini-series “Holocaust,” the presentation of “Schindler’s List,” and most recently with a new generation’s attempt at self-examination. This has resulted in a plethora of films about the Shoah in Germany these last few years.

Margarethe von Trotta’s “Hannah Arendt” opens this week. With it, the film writer/director courageously has chosen to open a wound that festers not just among Germans but Jews as well. She explores the life of Hannah Arendt, the New York-based German Jewish émigré and protégée of German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who by 1960 was teaching college and publishing philosophical works, and was considered a leading theorist.

Arendt chose to attend the Eichmann trial not as witness, but as observer and reporter for the New Yorker magazine. She had fled Berlin with the advent of the Nazis and like director Von Trotta made Paris her home. But with the start of war, she extricated herself from a French transit camp and made her way to Spain and Portugal and eventually to New York. Von Trotta has chosen to focus the film on Arendt’s journey to Jerusalem, where she confronted what she famously called “the banality of evil.”

Was Adolf Eichmann, the technocrat behind “the Final Solution” and the mass murder of Jews in Europe, a monster? Or was he simply an efficient bureaucrat, listening to orders from above, unable to think for himself, just doing his job? Arendt wanted to know.

With the publication of her book, “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil,” she alienated many friends and colleagues, as well as much of the Jewish community, who felt she was making excuses for Eichmann’s actions. In addition, Arendt posited that with the highly efficient and organized nature of Jewish communal organizations in the ghettos, the Nazis actually were able to inflict greater horror and send more Jews to their death. This was seen by many as a defense of the murderous Eichmann and an attack on the Jewish victims. To this day, Arendt’s writings remain controversial.

Margarethe von Trotta, who was at the center of the resurgence of new German cinema in the 1970s, is not one to back away from controversy. She made her way into the film industry as an actress first, and began co-writing and co-directing with her husband at the time, Volker Schlöndorff; their film, “The Lost Honor of Katarina Blum,” launched her career. Writing and directing and most often focusing on women, she made several successful films before 1986, when she made “Rosa Luxemburg.”

The film is the story of one of the most important socialist leaders of the 20th century. Had she lived, Luxemburg might have changed the course of Germany after World War I. Barbara Sukowa played Rosa, who was Jewish, and garnered Best Actress honors at Cannes that year.

Over the last decade and a half, von Trotta’s work has been most impressive. In 2003, she chose to struggle on film with the question of German acquiescence and nonviolent resistance during the war. It was a project that she had been working on for several years – the story of what happened outside a Berlin office building on Rosenstrasse, when a rare large-scale demonstration against Nazi policies resulted in a temporary halt to the deportation of German Jews who were married to non-Jews or who had a non-Jewish parent. The writer/director turned to Brooklyn-based American Jewish screenwriter Pam Katz for help, and together they crafted the powerful film called “Rosenstrasse.”

Now, again working with Katz, von Trotta provides an appreciation of Hannah Arendt as she examines the demons she fought in order to better understand the Shoah. Asked why she made the film, von Trotta said, “Like Arendt, I wanted to understand what the Germans did. It’s something you never can understand, but you can speak about it and analyze it.”

This is the third film in von Trotta’s Jewish trilogy. She has given us an amazing film that forces us to try and appreciate who Arendt was, what she stood for, and her unique situation as a German Jewish exile living in New York and reporting on Eichmann. It also is an opportunity to acknowledge the incredible talent of this German filmmaker, who with the help of co-writer Katz is not afraid to deal with important issues. The German-born, Brooklyn-based Barbara Sukowa returned to work with Von Trotta in this latest work and is absolutely magnificent as Hannah Arendt. This is a thinking person’s film, and one that might move the audience to gain a better understanding of a brilliant woman who chose not to shy away from controversy.

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