The Disappointment of Hannah Arendt (the film)

So I finally saw Hannah Arendt this weekend.

As entertainment, it was fine. I enjoyed the tender portrayal of Arendt’s marriage to Heinrich Blücher (though the rendition of her relationship to Mary McCarthy was painful to watch). I loved the  scenes in their apartment. Even though the depiction of its style and decor was more Mad Men than Morningside Heights, and the roominess, airiness, and light of the apartment gave little suggestion of the thick and heavy German hospitality for which Arendt and Blücher were famous. And, yes, a lot of the dialogue was painfully wooden and transparently devoted to narrative exposition, but I didn’t mind that so much.

My real problem with the film is that I can’t, for the life of me, figure out why it was made. As my wife pointed out to me, it doesn’t shed any new light on the Eichmann controversy or Arendt. There’s nothing in it you wouldn’t know from Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s biography or those drive-by summations of the Eichmann controversy that you get in standard intellectual histories of the period. So why make the film?

Films of this nature are supposed to dramatize something you can’t see in—or understand from—other genres. But does Hannah Arendt do that? I know there was much talk when it came out of the way that it captures on screen the process of thinking, but frankly I found those to be some of the more embarrassing scenes in the film. It’s a Hollywood producer’s idea of thinking: resting on the sofa, eyes closed, smoking, an idea crosses the thinker’s mind, eyes open. That that may have been how Arendt in fact did think—parts of it fit with Arendt’s own descriptions (not the cheesy eyes opening bits)—doesn’t quite redeem it, for the simple reason that seeing it on the screen doesn’t add anything to reading about it on the page.

I suppose one could argue that the film brings this story of Arendt and the Eichmann controversy to viewers who didn’t know anything about it. And that’s not nothing. But Hannah Arendt—who managed not only to bring stories to readers who didn’t know anything about them, but to tell those stories in a new and distinctive way, in part by the pioneering nature of her genre-bending writing—deserves better than that.


  1. Joanna Bujes June 28, 2014 at 11:50 pm | #

    Yes. It was a snore fest. The one thing that might have redeemed it was a bit of historical context, but I guess that would be too much to ask. And I’m not talking about history as wallpaper; I’m talking about history as crucible.

  2. Paolo Tescione June 29, 2014 at 12:24 am | #

    really excellent post visit my blog

  3. s. wallerstein June 29, 2014 at 8:29 am | #

    It’s very difficult, although not impossible, to understand someone who is more intelligent and more complex (being intelligent and complex usually go together) than oneself and Hannah Arendt is more intelligent and complex than almost everyone.

    She’s a misfit of sorts, neither on the left nor on the right, yet so brilliant that she fit. A German Jew who shone as a classic New York intellectual.

    Movies are good at portraying simple, basic human emotions or projects: ambition, lust, loyalty, love, but Hannah Arendt was special and movies are not good at depicting what is special.

  4. louisproyect June 29, 2014 at 8:50 am | #

    Since I was a student of both Heinrich Blucher and Hans Jonas, the film had a lot more interest for me. (review of the film) (my confrontation with Sukowa at the New School)

  5. louisproyect June 29, 2014 at 8:51 am | #
  6. BillR June 29, 2014 at 8:54 am | #

    Looks like the door stopper of a bio from the late Young-Bruehl, the movie also smoothly steers clear of “controversy”, such as her take on Zionism:

    In Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s Why Arendt Matters, which seeks to show her relevance to contemporary politics, Arendt’s bold essays on Israel and Zionism do not merit mention, much less discussion.

    No mention of her weakness for “lifting” either:

    “A lawyer of my publisher at the time asked me to draw up a list of items she had lifted. I found about eighty, but he also said that I would have to prove that she could not have obtained the information anywhere else. That proof I could not supply, except in such instances as an error of spelling that she had copied.” In The Politics of Memory, Hilberg dedicated a few pages to Arendt and obliquely mentioned that others had commented on her mostly invisible reliance on his research; he also averred that her work “consisted only of unoriginal essays on anti-Semitism, imperialism, and general topics associated with totalitarianism.”

  7. jonnybutter June 29, 2014 at 9:14 am | #

    My real problem with the film is that I can’t, for the life of me, figure out why it was made.

    Someone thought they could make a few bucks on it while simultaneously poofing up someone’s vanity, or some combination of the two.

    Gore Vidal said it best. He was talking about Hollywood, but it applies to most popular culture these days: doing immaculately well that which shouldn’t be done at all. (not exact quote but close).

  8. Aaron Gross June 29, 2014 at 12:36 pm | #

    Haven’t seen the movie, but one review I read described how the “Hannah Arendt” character and her story resembled protagonists in earlier movies by Margarethe von Trotta, if not always the real Hannah Arendt and her real story. So that might point to an answer to the question of why it was made.

  9. BillR June 29, 2014 at 1:10 pm | #
  10. BillR June 29, 2014 at 4:51 pm | #

    Arendt reminds one of something Alex Cockburn wrote about another Neocon-friendly intellectual who had free access to one or the other house journals of that set (Dissent or Commentary):

    …she tricked out her absurdities with pretentious references to Hobbes and Kant, thus tipping off the rubes that here was a Great Mind at work.

    Or, as Russell Jacoby noted of her reception in a land where “Life of the Mind” is and has never been much in vogue:

    [S]he is the beneficiary of the widespread belief that philosophical murkiness signals philosophical profundity.

    Michael Rosen did a hilarious send-up of murky philosophizing a la Judith Butler, who is proud of having mined deep insights from the seams of Arendt’s tomes:

    The promise of deconstruction lies, precisely, in its ability to inspire this post-metaphysical thrust ‘beyond the same and the other.’

    • s. wallerstein June 29, 2014 at 6:03 pm | #

      Hannah Arendt isn’t murky at all. I’ve read most of her books, including Life of the Mind, and she writes clearly.

    • LFC September 13, 2014 at 11:25 am | #

      Contrary to what BillR says, ‘Dissent’ is not now, and has never been, a house journal of the neocon set. That’s completely wrong.

  11. Roquentin June 29, 2014 at 5:02 pm | #

    I thought it was somewhere between mediocre and good. Then again, I had low expectations going into it. I’d agree with you that the intended audience for this was people who know little or nothing of Arendt, because there quite simply aren’t enough people who do to fund a major motion picture.

    I think you’re setting the bar too high. Compared to standard Hollywood fare: two hour special effects bonanzas, 50% of which are explosions, this biopic was an attempt to make a mature, intellectual sort of film.

    If you ask me, far and away the best film of 2014 thus far was Under the Skin.

  12. jonnybutter June 29, 2014 at 5:29 pm | #

    Movies are good at portraying simple, basic human emotions

    Exactly. If HA was a relative mediocrity, even of the academic sort, no one would care about her now. She’s interesting because she’s interesting, not simply because of the war, or she’s ‘a woman’, or all the other fairly banal reasons people get movies made about them.

    I would love to see a great movie about her, but I won’t hold my breath.

  13. GerardO June 30, 2014 at 8:28 am | #

    I don’t usually respond by asking the author a direct question, but:
    How did the movie treat Arendt’s relationship with Martin Heidegger? This is one of the most discussed points of her life, perhaps referenced more often than the Eichmann trial.

    • Corey Robin June 30, 2014 at 12:01 pm | #

      It comes up periodically throughout the film. Her relationship to him, the question of his thinking v. his thoughtlessness, and whether or not she’s still in his thrall.

      On Mon, Jun 30, 2014 at 8:28 AM, Corey Robin wrote:


      • GerardO July 3, 2014 at 6:08 am | #

        Interesting. Thanks Corey.

  14. Sheldon Philip Ranz June 30, 2014 at 10:48 am | #

    What did Mel Brooks call Hannah Arendt?

    Frau Blucher! (hear the horses neighing…)

Leave a Reply