How often do we get to see a film about ideas? And not just the ideas, but the origin of ideas? Barbara Sukowa as Hannah Arendt in Margaretha von Trotta's 2012 biopic spends a great deal of time on camera thinking - usually deep in thought smoking a cigarette. Denken is her first love, although her marriage to Heinrich Blücher is lovingly portrayed. It was her love of thinking that led to her maddening affair with Martin Heidegger, played by Klaus Pohl in the film. To seduce the young student he only has to say "Sie wollen bei mir das Denken lernen, Fräulein Arendt" ("You want to learn how to think from me,.") And then "Denken ist ein einsames Geschäft", ("Thinking is a lonely business"). Just how true that is becomes apparent later in the film, as Arendts love of Denken destroys her relationships with cherished friends and colleagues.
In the film we catch Arendt in 1961 as she leaves New York to cover the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, and von Trotta does a masterful job of weaving into her film the black and white footage from the actual trial. We hear and see Eichmann using the universal language of bureaucratese to justify his deeds and deny all culpability. We watch and listen to the anguished testimony of the witnesses and the eloquence of the prosecutor Gideon Hausner. We see Sukowa as Arendt focused intently on the man in the glass cage as her new idea of "the banality of evil" takes shape.
Later, when her piece is published in The New Yorker, she is falsely accused ot sympathizing with Eichmann. Arendt is vilified by her critics and abandoned by her colleagues at the New School. Only her husband and her friend Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer) stand with her. In the climatic courtroom-like scene, she confronts her critics with an emotional defense of Denken in the pursuit of truth.
But Denken, removed from its context in place and time - das Denken an sich - leads to Denkfehler. It led to her lover and mentor Heidegger embracing the Nazis. And it led to Arendt seeing only the man in the glass cage and not the virulent anti-Semite who - like all participants in the Holocaust, from the SS who did the actual killing to the bureaucrats who murdered with their Unterschriften and Stempel, all of whom bought into the notion of the notion of the Judenfrage and ultimately the neccessity of the FInal Solution. In Hannah Arendt the critics of the heroine are depicted as aggrieved Zionists, opportunists, and even intellectual cowards. History has proved Arendt's critics correct. Still, ideas - even ideas that prove to be wrong - need to be debated, and any attempt at censorship must be deplored.
I can think of no other film in the past few years that shows so clearly the power of ideas.