Hannah Arendt - The woman behind the film

Margarethe von Trotta, Barbara Sukowa, Janet McTeer and others on dramatising a life.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Barbara Sukowa, Janet McTeer, Margarethe von Trotta, Pam Katz, Ulrich Baer, and Director of Deutsches Haus NYU Martin Rauchbauer
Barbara Sukowa, Janet McTeer, Margarethe von Trotta, Pam Katz, Ulrich Baer, and Director of Deutsches Haus NYU Martin Rauchbauer Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
On the evening prior to the exclusive engagement of director Margarethe von Trotta's Hannah Arendt at New York's Film Forum, she, her stars Barbara Sukowa and Janet McTeer and co-screenwriter Pam Katz, along with Jerome Kohn, director of the Hannah Arendt Center at The New School, and adviser on the movie, gathered before an overflowing crowd at New York University's Deutsches Haus to discuss "the woman behind the film".

In his introduction, NYU Vice Provost for Arts, Humanities, and Multicultural Affairs Ulrich Baer cited Hannah Arendt: "[she] once said, revolutionaries stay revolutionaries until the day the revolution has happened, then they become conservative the next day. That is not something that could be said about Margarethe von Trotta."

Von Trotta's first encounter with Arendt was in Israeli documentary The Specialist, about the Eichmann trial, that impressed her very much. Eichmann In Jerusalem was one of the books she read in preparation for her film Rosenstrasse. As with Rosa Luxemburg, von Trotta said: "I have the feeling they [the subjects] are coming up to me."

She was hesitant making a film about Arendt after a friend suggested the subject to her. "I said, no, please, go away. It was like Satan, you know, was tempting me and I said no. But when an idea is put in your head, it starts to grow like a flower."

Barbara Sukowa: 'Above all, she wanted to start a discussion and a discourse' <em>Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze</em>
Barbara Sukowa: 'Above all, she wanted to start a discussion and a discourse' Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Her co-screenwriter on Rosenstrasse, Pam Katz was enthusiastic from the start, although von Trotta warned her that Arendt was a thinker, not the most cinematic of professions. "I think my first response to that was," Katz said "I think I remember that she made a lot of people angry. I think she made a lot of people in my family angry. So there must be something to make a movie about. But I was very naive, you were very correct, and it took us quite a while to figure out how to make this film."

Anne-Katrin Titze: Some of the strongest scenes in the movie show Hannah Arendt with her husband [played by Axel Milberg] at home. How did you assemble the scenes for the private Hannah?

Von Trotta: She wrote so many letters. A big correspondence also with Heinrich Blücher, her husband, with Karl Jaspers, with Heidegger, with Mary McCarthy. Big volumes, you really could get a lot of things out of these letters. The tenderness and also the irony, some points between husband and wife that only you know. She called him 'Oh, Monsieur', little things. We got them out of her letters. And her friend Lotte Köhler, when we met her she was already over 80 years old, she was still very aware and told us a lot about these two people. She told us some gossip also. We know from her that Heinrich was a womaniser, so we put that in the film. That gives life to it.

Pam Katz: The name of the correspondence between her and her husband is My Four Walls, which is how she thought of him.

Barbara Sukowa is von Trotta's long-time collaborator and star in three of her previous films about strong women (Marianne and Juliane in 1981, Rosa Luxemburg in 1986 and Vision in 2009 about the 12th century Benedictine abbess and composer Hildegard von Bingen). She gave her take on Hannah Arendt.

Sukowa: I think when she wrote Eichmann in Jerusalem she was not aware that she would make people so angry. Above all, she wanted to start a discussion and a discourse. She was not aware that she would cause that kind of hurt. It was very close to people having their entire family murdered and in that context, you don't really like to hear the word "banal". So a lot of people, I guess, didn't even read the book.

Jerome Kohn, who knew Hannah Arendt personally, remarked on a recent article: It could have been written 50 years ago but was only written a few days ago. In it, it said, because Hannah told truths about certain Jewish leaders and their activities during the war, that therefore she was a self-hating Jew. The logic is unbelievable… She was rather fond of telling the truth.

Janet McTeer: 'Have you ever been in a room with really scary people?' <em>Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze</em>
Janet McTeer: 'Have you ever been in a room with really scary people?' Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Janet McTeer plays the novelist Mary McCarthy, Arendt's closest friend, and recalled a conversation she had with a psychiatrist many years ago to prepare for a role: I had a long discussion and I remember her telling me all these stories and I was asking: "Have you ever been in a room with really scary people?" And she said "absolutely, I've had threats to kill me several times." And I asked "weren't you scared?" and she said "Lord, no. It was far too fascinating!"

That's something so specific about the way somebody thinks. Their thinking and their feeling are two completely separate things. For somebody who is the ultimate thinker, the philosopher…. from what she wrote and clearly in her letters to Mary, she [Hannah] was kind of surprised that people were so angry and so upset. Because, surely, it was just terribly interesting what she was talking about. To try and dissect how so many people, ordinary people, could do such dreadful things to other human beings… Mary McCarthy's role in the movie is more of a feeling person, although she is very clever. She is a foil for Hannah.

Von Trotta explained why she used original footage of Eichmann, and why it was clear to her from the start that she didn't want an actor. This was not about admiring an actor for a great performance: I wanted the people to see the mediocrity, so Pam and I chose to put the real material in.

The decision to shoot Sukowa as Arendt in colour, looking at the original black and white footage of Eichmann mostly in the press room, could also be explained because Arendt was a chain smoker.

Sukowa said she used to be a smoker but did not start again, although she had to smoke a lot for this role: I took herbal cigarettes. It was interesting how quickly the desire to smoke came. I made myself a promise, after the 'cut' of each scene, I didn't take another puff.

Barbara Sukowa plays Arendt, "the thinker," with so much finesse and tough delicacy that the cigarettes she smokes in almost every scene are clearly not needed as a crutch for the actress, or to give her something to do while reflecting.

Following up on McTeer's comments Sukowa added: Arendt once wrote, in a totalitarian state, it's like being in a mental institution where everyone has the same psychosis and you just don't know anymore, what is the truth and what is real.

Barbara Sukowa as Hannah Arendt and Janet McTeer as Mary McCarthy in the film
Barbara Sukowa as Hannah Arendt and Janet McTeer as Mary McCarthy in the film Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
Kohn commented on Arendt's "thinking without banisters": I happened to be there when she said that at a conference. Thinking without banisters, I've always kept that image for myself. Imagine, going on a stairway with no banister on either side, maybe the past on one side and the future on the other side. But that's not the point. How hard it would be to go up and down that banister-less stairway of thinking. I, too, am very impressed by that image.

Von Trotta had flashbacks with Heidegger: If we had done a movie about their love affair we would have got the money much easier. Marty and Hannah, that would have been a good title.

I was thinking, or, Hannah and Her Marty.

McTeer gave some insight on capturing the essence of McCarthy. She plays the novelist like a racehorse ready to act and never given the chance.

McTeer: McCarthy had that very particular Vassar accent which is old-fashioned and doesn't exist any more, a cross between Boston and Vassar and English. That's why I tried to turn it down a little because I felt, when I listened to her, that if I did it exactly the way she did it, it would sound like I was trying to do a caricature. I was just hinting at it.

Sukowa and von Trotta shared a common fear about this project.

Von Trotta: We had the feeling we were going hand in hand through a tunnel.

Sukowa: You know, two German women doing this film about Hannah Arendt and this Jewish topic, and the Holocaust, and all. We thought people might say "how dare you?" Luckily then we found a Jew [she looks at screenwriter Katz, to the great amusement of the audience].

Katz: It's true. I never knew how frightened you were during the filming. There is this fear that you two have that I don't have. And I think it's apropos to the subject. I never had the thought that I didn't have the right to write about this. I felt I had every right and more.

Margarathe von Trotta: 'We had the feeling we were going hand in hand through a tunnel' <em>Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze</em>
Margarathe von Trotta: 'We had the feeling we were going hand in hand through a tunnel' Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Von Trotta: What she was saying about the co-operation of some of the Jewish leaders. I told [Pam], me as a German, I am afraid to put that in. Have we the right to do that? And she said, yes, it has to be there because she wrote it… The main theme in [Arendt's] book is that thoughtlessness, when you don't think on your own, that can lead you to catastrophe.

Kohn: What Hannah Arendt paints in this book [Eichmann in Jerusalem] and in many other places as well is a general moral breakdown among so-called civilised societies. And that is what I think is truly controversial about this work and it is why it garners more readers every year. And now it's going to have a lot of viewers.

Observing Eichmann, who possessed the "horrible gift for consoling himself with clichés" gave Arendt the opportunity to explain the connection of language and conscience. Her use of "banality", the film makes very clear, must not be mistaken for innocence. Evil hides in plain sight.

Hannah Arendt will be screened at Film Forum for two weeks with the filmmakers attending select screenings. Friday, May 31, 6.30pm and 7.45pm; Saturday, June 1 at 7.45pm (von Trotta only). Presented with support from the Joan S Constantiner Fund For Jewish And Holocaust Film. Read more about the film on the official site.

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