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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
The Face of Evil
by Donald Levit

Nicolas Cage rips the mask from the sleazy porno-snuff-film baddie in 8MM, a schlub who rebukes his amazement with “What did you expect, a monster?” In the amazement of the Boston Marathon Bomb brothers’ family and acquaintances, as well, the ordinariness of evildoers recalls the hornet’s nest stirred by theory behind five 1963 articles and a following book by Hannah Arendt. That “woman thinking” is the subject of the eponymous film by Margarethe von Trotta, co-scripting once again with Pamela Katz and reunited with Barbara Sukowa as the title figure.

Too facilely categorized, perhaps to be dismissed, as a “feminist director,” the New German Cinema auteur and former actress is indeed drawn to relationships among women and to strong (and vulnerable), often-historical female characters but centers on their internal motivations and on their attitudes towards political thought and action. And in Young Törless and The Tin Drum, her husband of over forty years, Volker Schlöndorff, is known for his complementary cinematic criticism of their nation’s volk’s love affair with Hitler.

HA covers four years surrounding the Jerusalem trial and conviction of Colonel Adolf Eichmann for crimes against the Jewish people and against humanity. Opening frames reenact the escaped Nazi’s Argentine kidnapping by Mossad, while the film flashes back here and there to her as a starry-eyed philosophy student in a 1920s liaison with married renowned Marburg professor Martin Heidegger (Klaus Pohl) and once to her post-war disgust at his Nazi Party membership but steadfast loyalty to his intellectual standing.

The core is the 1961 trial, to which Arendt secures press credentials and a trip from New Yorker editor William Shawn (Nicolas Woodeson), based on his admiration for her university teaching and National Socialism-Stalinism study, The Origins of Totalitarianism. Onion-layered around the trial and her old friends now in Israel is her current life on Riverside Drive in New York, in a second marriage of soul mates with Heinrich Blücher (Axel Milberg), he “Stups” to her “Klaps.” There she is surrounded by books and notes, love and admiration from friends among 1960s intellectuals such as novelist-essayist friend Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer), professor and fellow former Heidegger student Hans Jonas (Ulrich Noethen), and personal secretary Lotte Köhler (Julia Jentsch).

Feeling that no actor could convey the mediocrity of evil and incapacity for independent individual thinking of the SS head of IV B4, responsible for shipping Jews to work and extermination camps, the director uses b&w archival footage of Eichmann in his protective-glass compartment. Slight, bespectacled, with receding hair, he sucks his lower lip, looks quizzical and insists that he was only following orders, a cog in the unstoppable machine whose end purposes did not matter to or affect him.

With many others covering the proceedings, Arendt mostly watches on closed-circuit screens in the pressroom, where, coincidentally, she is free to chain-smoke.

In subdued, brownish color back home, she takes her time formulating impressions for the magazine essays, kid-gloved along by Shawn. Her “the banality of evil” has entered the language by now but was startling when printed back then. But the firestorm was most severe over the concomitant assertion that European Jewry, and most especially its community leaders, was to an extent responsible for its own tragic fate. An early working title for this film was The Controversy.

Irate letters poured in, some friends, coreligionists and colleagues deserted her, and in the film she even sees fit to clarify misunderstood assertions in a tour-de-force eight-minute speech to students. She refuses to back down or recant.

This screen partial life does not go into the future when at the University of Chicago, in different ways, she and psychologist colleague Bruno Bettelheim were criticized as Jews with enough influence or importance to be gotten out of camps and away from Europe. But the film’s point has been made, in the contrast of staunch stick-to-her-guns individual Arendt as against the personality-less bureaucratic Nazi official.

(Released by Zeitgeist Films; not rated by MPAA.)

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