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HANNAH ARENDT directed by Margarethe von Trotta, written by Von Trotta and Pam Katz, with Barbara Sukowa and Janet McTeer. 110 minutes. A FilmsWeLike release. Some subtitles. Opens Friday (June 21). For venues and times, see listings.
It's not often that a movie ends with an eight-minute lecture.
Even The King's Speech, which is about a speech - will he or won't he get through it? - is spoken over barely a three-minute period. And it's got the second movement of Beethoven's 7th Symphony playing behind it to juice things up.
But in the final sections of Hannah Arendt, the titular writer and thinker has only her powerful presence and her provocative ideas going for her.
"Nobody's ever ended a movie with an eight-minute speech," says writer/director Margarethe von Trotta, looking elegant in a smart suit at TIFF 2012. "Who does such a thing?"
Well, von Trotta for one. She's aways been interested in ideas and the way they shape character. In Arendt, she's found a towering intellect who challenged the status quo by promulgating a very unpopular thesis: that Adolf Eichmann, chief implementer of the Final Solution, was a very ordinary man and that Jewish leaders may - inadvertently or not - have assisted the Nazis' genocidal plans.
When it comes to delivering the speech, to a class at the university that's threatening to fire her, von Trotta's frequent collaborator Barbara Sukowa is in front of the camera; she's in almost every scene.
Surprisingly, Sukowa didn't experience the shoot as a grind.
"If you have a part like that, it's not gruelling," says Sukowa in a separate interview at TIFF, her blond hair loose, looking nothing like her character. "It's always amazing to have a role with such substance."
Sukowa's performance is riveting, always intense even during the quieter moments. In some sequences Arendt takes in information and has to convey emotion without saying a word.
"I liked that about her," Sukowa says. "She was a very good listener, and she was always having a discourse with herself - ‘You and yourself,' she'd say, referring to Plato's idea. She felt that's how you make judgment - based on all that knowledge."
Both von Trotta and Sukowa dispute the contention that Arendt was able to write dispassionately about the Holocaust because she was keeping down her own feelings about having been imprisoned in a French internment camp during the war. Repression, they say, was not a factor.
"That's why I included that scene where her husband tries to convince her not to go to Jerusalem," insists von Trotta. "He knows it would be too painful for her. And so does she."
"It was a choice that she did not indulge in self-pity and introspection," agrees Sukowa. "The Holocaust, the trial, the horror - there was no emotion she could display that was adequate to the horror. It was so gigantic that she resorted to irony."
Though Arendt was known mainly for being an intimidating intellectual force, von Trotta was determined to show more than one side of the famous thinker. In the opening sequence, Arendt and her friends (including the novelist Mary McCarthy, played superbly by the great Janet McTeer) have a racy conversation about extramarital affairs.
"Some people wanted me to start with the speech that comes at the end," says von Trotta. "But I wanted to show that these women talked about other things. I read all of Arendt's letters to McCarthy, and they were all full of gossip about McCarthy's husbands and lovers."