NEW YORK — Director Margarethe von Trotta’s trademark is portraying complex German/Jewish women, ranging from “Rosa Luxemburg,” her biopic about the early 20th-century Jewish revolutionary to “Vision,” about 12th-century German Benedictine nun and composer Hildegard of Bingen. Both films starred von Trotta’s go-to actress, Barbara Sukowa.
But with Hannah Arendt von Trotta faced a challenge that would send most filmmakers running for a simple love story or tale of triumph. Arendt was a famous German-Jewish intellectual and philosopher in modern times. How does a director visually depict the inner life of a woman known mainly for her ideas? How does one make a movie in which thinking is the driving action?
“It seemed like hubris to want to tangle with such a woman,” von Trotta said last month in New York City, where “Hannah Arendt” had its US premiere. “I did ‘Rosa Luxemburg’ in 1985, ‘Rosenstrasse’ in 2002, and now ‘Hannah Arendt.’ When you see all three films, it is a trilogy but I didn’t know that at the time. Life was leading me to these three films.”
“It’s the audience that thinks,” added Sukowa. “Acting has a lot to do with thinking. Your thoughts have to be visible.”
Rather than a traditional biopic, von Trotta and co-writer Pamela Katz restricted their story to 1961, when Arendt covered for The New Yorker the Jerusalem trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann. Von Trotta wanted a human portrait of Arendt that showed her many sides: friend, lover, wife, refugee who fled Germany for France and later escaped to New York — and intellectual giant.
One of the film’s earliest scenes is a rigorous debate between Arendt and her friend, the American writer Mary McCarthy, played by Janet McTeer. But their verbal sparring in Arendt’s New York City apartment isn’t about politics or philosophy. It’s about men.
“When we wrote the script, [the producers] said we should start with the climactic speech to make clear that Hannah is an intellectual,” said von Trotta. “We decided to keep the speech at the end. After you’ve followed her process, then you are interested.”
The scene with McCarthy shows Arendt’s intellectual rigor as part of her being and that, contrary to some opinions of her, she was compassionate. “Mary [McCarthy] was much more forthcoming. Hannah was more the listener; she was not unpacking her personal life. You see that in their volumes of correspondence,” said von Trotta. “Mary wrote about Hannah’s thinking position. She would lay down, her eyes to the ceiling and no one dared to disturb her. And because she was smoking, they knew she was not sleeping. She was a chain smoker, and [her husband, German poet and Marxist philosopher] Heinrich Blücher smoked a pipe. Can you imagine the smell in this apartment?” she laughed.
It took many years for von Trotta, who is also an actress and divides her time between Berlin and Paris, to bring “Hannah Arendt” to the screen. She says producers worried that audiences would not remember or even be interested in the German-Jewish intellectual and philosopher who coined the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe Nazis such as Eichmann who claimed that they were just following orders. Von Trotta said even her own longtime producer said “Who?” when von Trotta mentioned that she wanted to make a film about Arendt. “My agent didn’t know her. Even well-educated people in Germany don’t know [who Arendt is]. So I found another producer, a woman who was very energetic from the beginning and she fought for years for the film. No one wanted to give us money.”
There was also resistance to Sukowa playing Arendt, even though she’s starred in six von Trotta films over 30 years. “She’s blonde and has blue eyes,” said von Trotta. “They said the same thing about Barbara playing Rosa Luxemburg. But I never thought of anyone else to play Hannah. It was an absolute condition from the beginning. I knew she would be fantastic.”
The word “muse” isn’t often used to describe female directors and their lead actresses, but that’s what comes to mind seeing von Trotta and Sukowa interact. They readily supply English translations for tricky German words (or vice versa). Von Trotta reached into her floppy bag to produce a sandwich for Sukowa at the start of the interview. Von Trotta is silver haired and maternal; Sukowa is Brooklyn-artsy in cat’s-eye glasses. (“It looks as if I want to pretend I’m Hannah Arendt but I’ve had these glasses for years,” she said.)
Sukowa, who was born in Bremen but has lived in New York for 20 years, may not look much like Arendt, but she delivers a fierce portrait of the Jewish émigré whose New Yorker essays became the controversial book, “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.” Arendt’s theory was that bureaucrats like Eichmann are capable of great evil not because they are monsters but because they fail to think for themselves. She also was critical of the way that some Jewish leaders responded during the Holocaust, which triggered considerable controversy and even animosity toward Arendt.
Did sexism play a role in Arendt’s vilification?
“Yes,” said von Trotta without hesitation. “It was because she was a woman. The dean of the university in Luxembourg said she was ‘cold and heartless and without feelings.’ People never say about a man, ‘Wasn’t he unemotional.’ For her, it was shameless to put her own feelings into the story. She was one of only two or three women who studied philosophy with Martin Heidegger. She was Princeton’s first woman professor, and the university wanted to promote this. But she said, ‘No, I’m just a professor.’ It’s like when I’m asked if I’m a feminist filmmaker —no, I’m just a filmmaker.”
Sukowa didn’t attempt to impersonate Arendt but found her own understanding of her. “You have to be solid in what you know. You have to prepare and then forget it and be open,” she said. “And if you have a director who’s an actress and a good one, you can risk things. We have so much confidence in one another. Margarethe doesn’t say, ‘This will be a success. This will please the audience.’ The trait that we both share with Hannah Arendt is that we’re both curious and like to learn and explore things. It is, of course, intimidating and a risk but that’s what life is about. When [von Trotta] does a film, she wants it; she’s for it. I don’t feel that passion, that investment, from other directors.”
Added von Trotta: “We are more courageous together than alone.”