Thursday, 22 August 2013
An interview the Director of 'Hannah Arendt', Margarethe Von Trotta
AN INTERVIEW WITH MARGARETHE VON TROTTA
Your films almost always offer an intense confrontation with significant historical figures: Rosa
Luxemburg, Hildegard von Bingen, the Ensslin sisters…. What excited you about Hannah Arendt?
The question of how to make a film about a woman who thinks. How to watch a woman whose main
action is thinking. Of course I was also afraid I wouldn’t do her justice. This made the cinematic portrayal
far more difficult than, for example, with Rosa Luxemburg. Both women were highly intelligent and unique
individuals, both were gifted in their capacity for love and friendship, and both were provocative thinkers
and speakers. Hannah Arendt’s life was not as dramatic as that of Rosa Luxemburg—but it was important
To find out more about her, I not only read her books and letters but also tried to find people who had
known her. Through these many conversations, I gradually discovered what I wanted to say about her,
and which time in her life would best serve my intentions. Sometimes I was actually quite afraid of her.
She would suddenly appear so abrasive and arrogant. Only after the famous conversation with Günter
Gaus did I finally become convinced that Arendt was truly a charming, witty and pleasant person. After
watching them together, I understood what Gaus meant when he said later in an interview that she was
the kind of woman for whom you instantly fell.
Your exploration continued while working on the script with American screenwriter Pam Katz in
2003. By 2006, you decided to focus the film (then under the working title The Controversy) on the
four years around the 1961 Adolf Eichmann trial.
We wanted to tell Hannah Arendt’s story without reducing the importance of her life and work, but also
without resorting to the all too sprawling structure of a typical biopic. After Rosenstrasse and The Other
Woman, Hannah Arendt is my third collaboration with Pam Katz. We were therefore able to write the
script in a sort of “ping-pong” technique, continuously discussing the work via email, telephone, and in
person in New York, Paris and Germany. Our first question was: what should we choose to show of
Arendt’s life? Her love affair with Martin Heidegger (which many probably expected)? Her escape from
Germany? Her years in Paris or her years in New York? After wrestling with all of these possibilities, it
finally became clear that focusing on the four years where she reported on and wrote about Eichmann
was the best way to portray both the woman and her work. The confrontation between Arendt and
Eichmann allowed us to not only illuminate the radical contrast between these two protagonists, but also
to gain a deeper understanding of the dark times of 20th-century Europe. Arendt famously declared that
“No one has the right to obey.” With her staunch refusal to obey anything other than her own knowledge
and beliefs, she could not be more different than Eichmann. His duty, as he himself insisted, was to be
faithful to his oath to obey the orders of his superiors. In this blind allegiance, Eichmann surrendered one
of the main characteristics that distinguishes human beings from all other species: the ability to think for
himself. The film shows Arendt as a political theorist and independent thinker set against her precise
opposite: the submissive bureaucrat who does not think at all, and instead chooses to be an enthusiastic
You were able to incisively capture Eichmann’s “not-thinking” character through the black-andwhite
archival footage from the trial.
You can only show the true “banality of evil” by observing the real Eichmann. An actor can only distort the
image, he could never sharpen it. As a viewer, one might admire the actor’s brilliance but they would
inevitably fail to comprehend Eichmann’s mediocrity. He was a man who was unable to formulate a single
grammatically correct sentence. One could tell from the way he spoke that he was unable to think in any
significant way about what he was doing. There is only one scene with Barbara Sukowa that takes place
in the actual courtroom; and there, because it had to be an actor, you only see Eichmann’s back. We
filmed all the other courtroom scenes in the pressroom, where the trial was actually shown on several
monitors. This was a way of being able to use the real Eichmann, via the archival footage, in all the
But we had also come to believe that since Hannah Arendt was a heavy smoker, she
would have spent more time in the pressroom than in the courtroom. That way, she could follow the trial
and smoke at the same time. Many of the other journalists also watched the trial on the TV screens and
filed reports at the same time. By the way, long after writing this sequence, we were finally able to speak
with Arendt’s niece, Edna Brocke, who was with her in Jerusalem at the time. She confirmed that her aunt
had indeed spent most of her time in the pressroom because she was allowed to smoke there!
Hannah Arendt would not be a von Trotta film if we failed to also see Hannah Arendt as a woman,
lover and friend. And if we didn’t get to better understand the complexity of this great thinker.
The film is also about her life in New York, her friends, her love for Martin Heidegger—even if we were
convinced that Heinrich Blücher is was a far more important figure in her life. She called Heinrich her “four
walls,” meaning her “one true home.” Heidegger was Hannah Arendt’s first love, and she remained
connected to him despite his affiliation with the Nazis. At the very beginning of my research, Lotte Köhler,
Arendt’s only remaining living friend, gave me the book of published correspondence between Heidegger
and Arendt. But she made sure to let me know that Arendt had kept all his letters in her bedside drawer.
In a flashback, we show Arendt meeting him during a visit to Germany. This meeting actually took place,
although just several weeks before their encounter, she had written a letter to her friend and mentor, Karl
Jaspers, in which she called Heidegger a murderer. Arendt’s niece said that her aunt explained her
ongoing relationship with Heidegger by insisting that “some things are stronger than a human being.”
For the role of Hannah Arendt you again chose to cast Barbara Sukowa. Why?
I saw Barbara Sukowa in the role of Hannah Arendt right from the very beginning, and fortunately
managed to overcome any initial resistance to casting her. I would not have made this film without
Barbara. I needed an actress that I could watch while she was thinking. Barbara was the only one who
could be relied upon to meet this difficult challenge.
How well Barbara Sukowa succeeds is evident—among many scenes—in the eight-minute speech
at the end of the film. Not many directors would have taken the risk of trying to hold the attention
of the audience for so long. Why did you make this decision?
Many felt that a film about Hannah Arendt should actually start with a speech. But we begin with a
conversation between girlfriends talking about their husbands. We wanted the final speech to be the
moment where the audience finally understands the conclusions her thinking has brought to light. Only
after one has watched her as she gleaned her insights about Eichmann’s character, and seen how she
was so brutally and often unfairly attacked for them, are you then willing to listen to her for so long. By
then, one has fallen in love with her, as well as her way of thinking. And Barbara’s performance is both so
intelligent, and so emotional, it takes your breath away. We have moved gradually towards this moment,
slowly giving the audience the opportunity to understand the building blocks of Arendt’s complex thoughts
and to comprehend what she meant by the banality of evil. The speech is both the intellectual and the
emotional climax of the entire film.
The crew is full of powerful women: co-writer Pam Katz, producer Bettina Brokemper,
cinematographer Caroline Champetier, editor Bettina Böhler. Coincidence or conscious decision?
I didn’t plan it that way—it just happened. But then again perhaps it wasn’t a coincidence. But Hannah
Arendt was the opposite of a feminist and Hannah Arendt is also not a typical “woman’s film.” It is a film
made by highly dedicated and professional people committed to telling a story that does justice to her life.
According to Karl Jaspers, Hannah Arendt’s teacher and friend, “the venture into the public realm
is only possible when there is trust in people.” Each one of your films is such a venture. How
does this apply to Hannah Arendt?
In the spirit of Hannah Arendt, trusting the audience to move through ignorance and amazement to the
desire to understand, and ultimately to arrive at such an understanding.