Margarethe von Trotta on Hannah Arendt “Turning thoughts into images”

Barbara Sukowa as Hannah Arendt
Barbara Sukowa as Hannah Arendt | Photo (detail): © Heimatfilm

Margarethe von Trotta speaks with us in an interview about her new period film “Hannah Arendt”. The project takes Trotta on-location in three different countries and sees her teaming up for the sixth time with actress Barbara Sukowa.

After films like Rosenstraße (2003), I am the Other Woman (2006) and Vision – From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen (2009), TV movies on Hessischer Rundfunk, including an episode of Tatort (2007) in Frankfurt, and a chamber play, Die Schwester (2010), director Margarethe von Trotta is now completing a film recounting four years in the life of German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt (1906-1975). The screenplay for the film was written by the director herself and American co-author, Pam Katz, who she also teamed up with for Rosenstraße in 2003.

Barbara Sukowa plays the lead, making it the sixth time she has worked with the renowned director. She’ll share the limelight with Axel Milberg, Ulrich Noethen, Michael Degen, Julia Jentsch, Victoria von Trauttmansdorff, Janet McTeer and others in front of French camerawoman Caroline Champetier’s lens. The drama is set in the 1960s and was filmed between October 16 and December 17, 2011, in just 37 filming days in North Rhine-Westphalia, Jerusalem and Luxembourg. The planned release is October 2012.

Thinking and writing, those are the things that really defined the great philosopher Hannah Arendt. The objective of the film was to transform this thought into a film, to make it a visual embodiment of a real person.

How does one use film to describe a woman who thinks? How can we watch her while she thinks? That is of course the big challenge when making a film about intellectual personalities. I insisted that Barbara Sukowa play Hannah because she is the only actress I know who I could imagine showing me how someone thinks, or that someone is thinking. And she managed to do it. For me, it was clear from the beginning that she was the one, and I had to push for her to get the role because some of the investors couldn’t visualize it. I said to them, “I am not doing this film without her.” I had the same situation with Rosa Luxemburg and again with Hildegard von Bingen – she really experienced the intellectual nature of Rosa’s political speeches, for example. That is how it is with Hannah Arendt. The viewer has to see that she is really thinking. She does two speeches in this film as well. Arendt was a professor at various universities in the United States and she did seminars and speeches on philosophical and political subject matter. In situations like that, it’s not about just reading your lines. You have to be able to improvise and develop the speech as you go. In the film there is a six-minute speech in English, with the strong German accent that Arendt had, and Sukowa is able to get viewers to experience, think and follow her analyses.

What were the preparations for the film like? And what about your contact with Arendt’s world?

Before we started writing the screenplay we met with a lot of people in New York who had known Arendt well on a personal level. People like Lotte Köhler, her longtime colleague and friend who died in 2011 at the age of 92, or Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, who also died in 2011, as well as others like Lore Jonas, widow of Hans Jonas, and Jerome Kohn, her last assistant and publisher of her posthumous writings. Those were amazing encounters, the stuff you need when you are writing a script about this type of real person who you’ve never met yourself.

How was it working on this script with your co-author, Pam Katz, who is American and Jewish?

We wrote the first script in 2004. We then waited a whole year until concrete funding came. Since then we have rewritten it a number of times, streamlined it, emphasized the essential bits, and tried to make it more like a living creation than a history lesson. We wanted it to be something where the individual people who were involved in Hannah’s life at that time don’t come across as mere accessories but real active characters in that life: her husband, Heinrich Blücher, her philosophy teacher and lover Martin Heidegger, and her friend Mary McCarthy. At the beginning, we thought we needed to tell her whole life story, including the 1930s and 40s, but we ultimately reduced it to four vital years that were full of not just writing, contemplation and discussion, but also full of life experience.

The film is set between 1960 and 1964, during the Adolf Eichmann years, a national socialist who organized the genocide against Jews in World War II, was arrested and tried in Jerusalem, and then hanged in 1962 for his crimes. Hannah Arendt reported on the trial for “The New Yorker” magazine. Her article described Eichmann as representing the “banality of evil”, a turn of phrase that was immediately adopted into everyday language. How does one portray a man like Eichmann in a film?

I don’t think an actor can bring out what a person really feels when he/she sees and observes the real Eichmann. The misery, the mediocrity, the bureaucratic language – the man was unable to utter a normal sentence. He was a civil servant. The awe and disgust that one experiences when watching this man isn’t possible when it is an actor, I don’t think, so we decided to show Hannah primarily in the press office – which did exist – where the trial was being shown on TV screens. That allowed me to use the original black-and-white documentary footage.

The Eichmann part of the shooting took place in Israel…

Yes, it is a co-production with Israel. Very good people. The one difficult thing in Israel was finding suitable extras. The only people we found there were Russians, and they unfortunately didn’t look like the people we needed. They also only spoke Russian. At times there were four or five languages being spoken on the set. I felt like we were building the Tower of Babel. That made the Israeli portion of the filming difficult. The language on the set was actually English.

Frenchwoman Caroline Champetier, who received a French “César” award in 2011, was in charge of the camera for the film.

Since it was a co-production with Luxembourg and France, I knew I should get a cameraman or woman from one of those countries. I had just seen the award-winning film Des Homme et des Dieux (Of Gods and Men) and I’d liked it a lot, so I contacted Caroline. She agreed to work with us, and was very excited to do a film with Barbara Sukowa – she was convinced this would be a real film for women. She created wonderful light and images. She’s a passionate artist in that regard. We worked with the new digital camera from Red as well, which makes it my first digital film. We did it in CinemaScope, as we had done with Vision previously.

Did your image of Hannah Arendt before, during and after the film change in any way for you? Who is she now for you personally, now that the film is finished?

She is now Barbara. Hannah Arendt and Barbara Sukowa have now merged into one for me, and that is not projection. Suddenly, someone out of flesh and blood is standing in front of me, with her own voice, but one that is not identical to Hannah Arendt. Of course, it is just an approximation, and yet it is her – her spirit, her intellect, the way she moves and how she speaks. In that way it is a fusion of sorts, in a similar vein to what happened in Rosa Luxemburg. Why do you make a film like this? Not just to get lost in the past, but to find something in the past that will challenge people now, that will be exciting now, that will be relevant today. It’s not a documentary. I can choose, so I choose from things that are exemplary for me, or contradictory, or moving. Of course, to an extent, I want to bring that person out of the past and into the present. As a result, like with Rosa Luxemburg, I look for things that interest me. There will always be a bit of strangeness, but when someone as good as Barbara Sukowa takes the role, you can be virtually certain that she will manage to create a spirited and lively character.

In that regard, Hannah Arendt is certainly in a league with other women you have portrayed…

Just like Rosa Luxemburg was important at the beginning of the 20th century, Hannah Arendt became important at the end of the same century. Despite dying in 1975, her true significance became increasingly clear as the century advanced. Rosa was a woman who fought for a more just society at the beginning of the century, and she paid for that with her life. Before that, because of 1968, I had portrayed Gudrun Ensslin and her sister in 1981 in Die bleierne Zeit (Marianne und Juliane), even if it wasn’t under their own names. Those were women who did things people didn’t expect of them. They wanted to change the world, create more equality. Gudrun Ensslin fought and lost her life as well. Within this political context it is always my own personal interest in these people that influences the project. Hannah Arendt is a woman who fits into my personal mold of historically important women that I have portrayed in my films. “I want to understand,” was one of her guiding principles. I feel that applies to myself and my films as well.