What it does bring however is a respectful account of her, the woman behind the brain, coupled with an introduction to her thought. In stark contrast to Arendt's complex study of dehumanisation in totalitarian regimes, von Trotta's film aims to humanise Arendt the academic. Occasionally described as an arrogant and self-hating Jew by her peers, the Arendt depicted here by Barbara Sukowa is a thick-skinned yet sensitive and deeply valued woman - a loyal friend with a commendable ability to forgive those close to her heart. By showing us the woman behind the brain, von Trotta enables us to contextualise Arendt's thinking and her drive to understand life and its people, what she called "amor mundi".
Arendt's reports for the magazine were compiled into a book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. While this sequence of von Trotta's film does make for compelling viewing, there is a risk here of simplifying a complex and divisive theory which fits into a much broader and groundbreaking study of Europe's darkest phase of recent history. Taking her cue from her previous work, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt shocked her contemporaries by claiming that it was too simplistic to attribute the Holocaust exclusively to the deed of Aryan anti-Semitic monsters. The reality was much more nuanced and complex, one which involved the participation and consent of an entire society in which the boundaries between perpetrators and victims were blurred.
For all of Hannah Arendt's shortcomings, von Trotta should be praised for tackling such a difficult subject so personally, giving us an insight into the shaping of Arendt's theory by focusing on her human traits and passion for thinking and understanding. In a poignant speech in the final act, Sukowa's Arendt reminds her students of the importance of thinking and asking questions as part of their duty to understand - the antithesis of Eichmann and co's actions. At the very least, von Trotta succeeds in sparking a new lease of life into the work of one of the most important political thinkers of the 20th century.
Von Trotta's Hannah Arendt is out now on DVD, courtesy of Soda Pictures. You can read our review of the film here.