She's often referred to as a philosopher, but the great thinker and writer Hannah Arendt considered herself a political theorist. However you choose to characterize her work, the absorbing new film "Hannah Arendt" finds the living pulse in it, and Barbara Sukowa's performance in the title role is the kind that reverberates long after the screen goes black.
Director Margarethe von Trotta, for whom Sukowa has portrayed such remarkable figures as Rosa Luxemburg and Hildegard von Bingen, builds her movie around Arendt's response to a charged moment in history — the 1961 trial of Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann — and to the backlash against her writing about it, which famously revolved around the concept of the "banality of evil." Covering the event for the New Yorker, Arendt found the man in the glass booth to be not the monstrous predator that most people assumed but "a nobody." Watching her watch him (Von Trotta makes powerful use of footage from the trial) is to see a ferocious intelligence in the white heat of cogitation.
There's also lots of talk in "Hannah Arendt," some of it inspired, some of it far less so. In a way, the film feels conflicted, divided against itself: It moves between the vibrancy of in-the-moment argument and the artificiality of exposition, with a stilted quality to sections of the screenplay (by Pamela Katz and Von Trotta) and some of the performances. But when it's firing on all synapses, it has a persuasive force.
Sukowa imbues Arendt's relationships with extraordinary depth, evident in the solidity of her marriage to Heinrich Blücher (Axel Milberg), infidelities and all, and in the intellectual spark between her and New Yorker editor William Shawn (a very good Nicholas Woodeson). Her friendship with Mary McCarthy is especially gratifying. In Janet McTeer's magnetic performance, the novelist is a formidable defender of Arendt against the likes of Norman Podhoretz, and an exuberant cheater at pool.
In contrast to the warmth of the two women's exchanges, most of Arendt's detractors come across as puppets mouthing a party line. However oversimplified and reactionary their interpretation of Arendt's work, the declaratory theatricality of their protests undercuts the drama. Likewise, flashbacks to Arendt's love affair with philosopher Martin Heidegger (Klaus Pohl) are just distractions from the main event: the captivating depiction of a committed life, a mind always questioning and engaged. What a paradox that so many criticized Arendt for an alleged lack of feeling.
MPAA rating: None.
Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes. In English and German with English subtitles.
Playing: Laemmle's Royal, West Los Angeles; Laemmle's Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Laemmle's Town Center 5, EncinoCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times