Sunday, March 15, 2015

Thinking is invisible: Hannah Arendt by Margarethe von Trotta

I saw Margarethe von Trotta's film Hannah Arendt a few days ago. I'd intended to blog about it as soon as but life got in the way and now I have my scribbles and the briefest impressions about the film. So this is not a review, just a bunch of thoughts.


I last saw a von Trotta film more than 20 years ago at FTII. It left no impression on me. She was name a put along with Wenders, Fassbinder, Herzog and Sanders-Brahms and that's it. Now Helma Sanders-Brahms I remember. i remember being horrified and strangely moved by her Germany Pale Mother. 

But von Trotta's film I don't remember. So I watched Hannah Arendt with not too many preconceptions and even with some anticipation. I'd done no reading before - no New Yorker articles of the Eichmann trial, no quick read of Banality, nothing. 

If a bio pic is made at all, surely it must be made for people in my pristine state? I was a blank slate on which to impress whatever the filmmaker wanted to say about Arendt.

The film was screened in an upstairs room at the Goethe Zentrum. It was 11.30 in the morning and nearly summer. The room was insufficiently darkened and the first scene was in low light. I know there was a torch swinging a half-circle as it was left on the ground after sounds of scuffle; and I assume, from what followed that it was Eichmann being captured by Mossad. 

Other low- lit scenes followed and I struggled to see what was happening. 


The film follows a fairly straightforward narrative. Eichmann's capture, the news of it, Arendt's volunteering to cover the trial for the New Yorker, the visit to Jerusalem, the trial (with intercuts between images of the actual trial and reconstructions of the courtroom and the press room), Arendt's return, her (much-delayed) articles and the backlash. 


I want to talk about bio pics and how, as a genre they are interesting for how little is possible within the framework. Or how little filmmakers achieve. There is a life and there are significant points in the narrative that are public knowledge. But those aren't interesting in themselves because they point to nothing new about the human being involved.

So bio pics devolve into a narrative about the minor events in the life of a person that contribute to their 'growth' as a character and the detail the ways in which small, throwaway events influence the larger events we're somewhat familiar with. 

In Hannah Arendt, for instance, an incidental  conversation in which Mary McCarthy corrects Arendt's use of English ('It's when the CHIPS are down. Not SHIPS.') pays off in the final scene in what is practically the closing line of the film, when Arendt gets it right and the audience (in the theatre; not in the film's lecture room where the scene takes place) laughs. 

No growth there, certainly, but an indication that the character is listening and learning. That she is behaving like characters should in good fiction - creating an arc for herself and her life. Getting from here to there in a neat progression of stimulus and response. Of what use is a bio pic in which the central character learns nothing and changes in no significant way?

The main problem with the film - which I will confess to not responding to very well - is that it's a film about a thinker. And thinking is invisible. How does a director rise to the challenge of showing a person for whom all the drama and the movement is in the head?

Traditional montage, that we're so used to now we know what it's doing and how, finds visual representations that the character responds to. We know what they're thinking by how they respond. There's a lexicon of visual and aural codes that's been internalised from culture to culture in cinema's swiftly-moving century.

Chance conversations, and observations made in idle moments, the visible sharpening of the character's attention, the connections being made - this is how we know what's going on in the head.

In this film, von Trotta chooses the flashback; she chooses to have Arendt build her theories by remembering her interactions with Martin Heidegger. It's an interesting solution. For one thing, it's not clear what it is that she learns from remembering each of these interactions, so there are no clear lines drawn between the two things. The process of thought remains mysterious, which is as it should be. 

Also - less interestingly - it serves to point out Arendt's capacity for feeling at a time when she is, in her writing, being detached and refusing to be ruled by her passions - a thing that the Zionists in both Israel and New York are unable to understand.

There were things about the film that felt very old. The intercut trial in black and white and colour (well, that could hardly be helped, I suppose); the sound design that had sirens, the sound of military boots and such-like to signify a transition into the past - other things I'm forgetting now. 


It made me wonder why this film and why now. What about Arendt and the Eichmann trial is worth revisiting now? 


Yeah - I don't really have any more to say about the film other than that I was disappointed in its predictability, in the way it hit plot points and tried hard to find narrative tropes that were primarily fictional. There was nothing interesting in it as a film. 

If I wanted to revisit the Eichmann trial, I think I would prefer to go read Arendt's articles in the New Yorker rather than watch a film about it. I have no doubt that I would find her own words more worthwhile than the 90 minutes that tried (and failed) to convince me that this was an important moment in 20th century history and philosophy.

1 comment:

km said...

I've had this one queued up in Netflix for a couple months now and I have been resisting it for ALL the reasons you've mentioned. Now I think I will just read the New Yorker archives.

Can they really make bio-pics of writers, thinkers and painters (and musicians) without resorting to the familiar narrative arcs?