Hannah Arendt's coverage of the Adolf Eichmann trial led to the most controversial chapter in the life of the writer, philosopher and political theorist whose dates are 1906-1975.
The year is 1961, and Arendt (Barbara Sukowa) is writing to The New Yorker requesting that she be sent by the periodical to cover the Jerusalem trial of SS Lieutenant Colonel Eichmann. He has been accused of sending millions of Jews to death camps. Born the only child of Russian-Jewish parents, Arendt escaped the concentration camps, but she had been interned in a detention camp in Southern France in 1940 when the Wehrmacht invaded.
The young Hannah managed to escape, and was later reunited with her second husband Heinrich Blücher (Axel Milberg). Twenty years on, the couple are living together happily in a New York apartment. Hannah is popular with her students; Blücher is also a lecturer. They have friends around to talk politics. They smoke endlessly; it seems the whole of New York City is on a chain-smoking bender.
Hannah's best friend, the novelist Mary McCarthy (Janet McAteer), appears in the opening scene, discussing her marital difficulties. A gossipy socialite - certainly in this portrayal - McCarthy is clearly there to alleviate anything too earnest in the film. It doesn't work as a ploy, as McCarthy comes across as spiteful, intensely annoying and, well, a boring caricature. Supporting roles have to be convincing too.
Anyway, Arendt gets the green light from The New Yorker, and travels to Jerusalem. There she is reunited with Kurt Blumenfeld (Michael Degen), with whom she once worked in trying to help the victims of Nazism.
The thing that causes a serious rift between Arendt and Blumenfeld - her position on Eichmann's guilt - is what later incurs the collective wrath of Jewish Americans. In Arendt's New Yorker report, she declares that Eichmann had failed to think about what he was doing. He was not a monster, she argues, but an obedient bureaucrat conditioned to obey orders. By taking such a stance, Arendt was seen to be excusing, or even elevating the SS Lieutenant Colonel.
Despite the obvious strength of its cast, Hannah Arendt's life, as depicted here, lacks sufficient drama to make little more than a reasonably compelling film.