Barbara Sukowa stars as Hannah Arendt, a German-Jewish philosopher and New School professor who reported on the 1961 trail of former Nazi Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. She later wrote five controversial articles about the trial which were published in 1963 in The New Yorker. What made her articles controversial? She argued that Eichmann was neither an anti-Semite nor a "monster"; he was merely following orders, never killed any Jews himself and was unable to tell the difference between right from wrong while working for Hitler. She also stirred a lot of controversy by theorizing that the Israeli government was partly responsible for the Holocaust because of their complacency. Not surprisingly, she received many angry letters in the mail including death threats, but she also received some praise concurrently. Heinrich Blücher (Axel Milberg), her second husband, remained with her throughout as did her personal secretary Lotte Köhler (Julia Jentsch). Her real friend and strong supporter was novelist Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer).
Writer/director Margarethe von Trotta and co-writer Pamela Katz do an admirable job of balancing suspense and drama without veering into melodrama. Hanna Arendt remains an emotionally compelling and provocative character study of a brave, intelligent woman. Von Trotta and Katz smoothly interweave actual footage of the Eichmann trials. The flashbacks of Arendt's liaisons with professor Martin Heidegger (Klaus Pohl), her first husband, are interweaved awkwardly, though, and therefore slightly diminish the film's dramatic momentum, although not enough to lead to boredom.
Hanna Arendt's heart and soul lies in the bravura performance by Barbara Sukowa. She anchors the film from start to finish and even captivates your heart when she simply lays on the couch while in deep thought. The performances from the supporting actors are a bit uneven ranging from wooden performances from Arendt's students at the New School and colleagues at The New Yorker to superb performances from Jentsch, Milberg and McTeer, who provides some comic relief and panache. That comic relief adds just the right amount of levity to keep the film from being too dry. Arendt's lecture about the banality of evil manages to be the film's most memorable scene and one that leaves you rewarded both intellectually and emotionally more than any scenes in recent film history. If Sukowa were to be nominated for an Academy Award, which she certainly deserves to, the Academy should select that scene as an example of how Sukowa sinks her teeth into Arendt with utter conviction. You may not agree with Arendt's theories nor do you have to in order to enjoy the film, but you will find yourself inspired to think critically which is a rare feat in our dumbed-down, shallow culture.