It’s not every week that you get to see a movie about an intellectual contretemps, let alone one that rocked the Jewish world. Indeed, in a way, [Margarethe] Von Trotta and screenwriter Pamela Katz have attempted something far more difficult and potentially absurd than making a documentary, namely setting out to dramatize an upheaval in the life of the mind. The only filmmaker who has ever really turned the trick is Roberto Rossellini in his early-’70s telefilms Socrates, Descartes, and Blaise Pascal. (Would that he had also essayed Spinoza!)
Von Trotta and Katz could not possibly do justice to the outrage—and outrageous abuse—that Arendt inspired, or to the breadth of her continents-spanning life and thought. A sprinkling of flashbacks notwithstanding, it’s Arendt in Jerusalem and on Eichmann that Von Trotta considers in her film.
Greatly simplified, Arendt’s three great sins were 1) suggesting that the “desk murderer” Eichmann was a mediocre opportunist rather than the devil incarnate (and thus all the more frightening); 2) publicly discussing and denouncing the role of Nazi-appointed Jewish Councils in the Final Solution; and 3) examining the judicial basis for the trial itself. Arendt, however subtle in her analysis, was not given to understatement; still, to a large degree the tumult she inspired was a case of blaming the messenger.