Ride of her life: Hannah Arendt (Barbara Sukowa) rides the Egged bus to Jerusalem to cover the Eichmann trial
"So," the motherly brunette asks conspiratorially, a billiard cue slung below her arm, "Was he the greatest love of your life?"
No, it's not a scene from the latest chick flick; it's from Hannah Arendt, Margarethe von Trotta's new biopic about the German-Jewish political theorist. The questioner is the American critic and novelist Mary McCarthy, and she is referring to none other than Martin Heidegger, the controversial Nazi-aligned philosopher. The film's central plotline follows Arendt's coverage of the 1961 Eichmann trial and its aftermath. Particular attention is given to disputes about the "banality of evil" — Arendt's notorious thesis intended to explain why the Nazi leader took care of the trains while letting the categorical imperative run on empty. But Geschichtsphilosophie this ain't.
Part of the problem is that the film leans heavily on the correspondence between Arendt and McCarthy: long stretches of dialogue are taken verbatim from their letters and recast as verbal exchanges. This is curious, for in recent years more information has become available on the Eichmann trial and especially Arendt's perspective on it than ever before. So why is von Trotta relying largely on the chatty, theatrical exchanges of McCarthy and Arendt for her source material?
Both Arendt and McCarthy are the subject of seemingly endless fascination and study. And no wonder: they led extraordinary lives. McCarthy, born in Seattle in 1912, became a famously cutting wit among the Partisan Review crowd. Arendt, born in Hanover in 1918, studied under (pun sadly intended) Heidegger and went on to write her dissertation with Karl Jaspers. Arendt's topic was love: specifically, the idea of love in Augustine. McCarthy's topic was sex: her taboo-busting, bestselling novel The Group included frank treatments of lesbianism, birth control, and sex from the woman's point of view.
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