Of all the genres in contemporary film, the feminist historical biopic is one of the most noble. This rare style continues the tradition of the 1960s women’s movement by revealing silenced narratives. In most historical films, women occupy supporting roles that, while often insightful, are underdeveloped. Work for female actors beyond 40 is so scarce (especially in America) that featuring them is all the more triumphant.
It takes a maverick artist like Margarethe von Trotta to make such a film today. The new entry from this New German Cinema figure, Hannah Arendt, is the third of a biography trilogy, preceded by Rosa Luxemburg (1986) and Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen (2009). With Arendt following Vision, fans would think that the filmmaker has found a new metier. Yet, as Trotta said during a recent telephone interview, she’s done with biopics for now and will return to her trademark “smaller” style of filmmaking.
Vision turns to the medieval period, one of the most curious times for feminist discovery. Like Margery Kempe, a thirteenth-century nun who dictated what’s believed to be the first biography in English, the writer, composer, and philosopher Hildegard von Bingen had talents that were hidden behind religious convention. Aptly titled, the film unveils a unique life which was aligned to, and yet expanded beyond, her role as a nun. Such a life was the only means for women to reach intellectual pursuits, and Trotta depicts a woman devoted to what restrained her.
Vision plays like a character study, with each event adding to a record of this great woman. Arendt dedicates its narrative to the title character’s famous coverage of the Adolf Eichmann trial, in which the author coined the phrase “the banality of evil.” To her, Eichmann was very ordinary and following orders, however horrendous they were. Arendt is so measured and elegant that the filmmaking seems effortless, thanks to the pairing of the director and star Barbara Sukowa (also the lead in Vision).
Matthew Sorrento: I like your depiction of Hannah lying on her back, thinking. How did you come across the idea to depict her this way?
Margarethe von Trotta: Author Mary McCarthy was a big fan of hers, which you can also see in the film. She describes in one of her articles – I can’t remember which – a thinking position, or how she would lie down, and look out in front of her, smoking. Sometime she had her eyes closed, at times open. But everyone could see that she was thinking, and you were not to disturb her at this moment. People would tiptoe not to disturb her.
Yes, yes – Mary McCarthy described it so well that I knew exactly how to film it. So it appears three times in the film. It’s also at night, in New York. Heidegger [with whom Hannah studied and had a long-term affair] says that “thinking is a lonely business.” She’s alone, and thinking, but she’s not really alone because thinking is her passion.
I love how you depict the skyline of New York as dreamy, yet ghostly. Is this film about New York?
Yes, New York was her new home, and she became part of it. Since we couldn’t afford shooting in New York, we tried shooting in Toronto, to be closer in spirit. We even looked up locations, and had a co-producer in Canada. But still, it was too expensive. We are poor European filmmakers! [Laughs]
When you are making a film about thinking, you have a feeling that you are in the big city that you must create.
Yes, I had two wonderful projects and women to feature. But the next film will not be a biography of a famous woman. I have done many films about sisters and friends in the past. I will return to this style. I can’t become a filmmaker doing serial work about important women. It would be too much – it’s an idea that I don’t like. The biography film did intrigue me, especially while making Vision. I didn’t know that Hildegard von Bingen even existed, in the 1970s. Then, after women’s liberation, I looked out for women of the past who would serve as a model for inspiration. Once I learned about [Bingen], I wanted to make a film about her ever since. But now I’m going to something else.
Would you say that Vision is more of a character study than Arendt?
Yes, but the one important point they have in common is really Barbara Sukowa. She is so intelligent. She’s so curious, like me, that I feel we are like sisters.
Hannah comes to a new change in her life, by taking up journalism [in writing for the New Yorker about the Eichmann trial] instead of scholarship. How important was this change to you?
I was most interested in depicting her time with Eichmann, since I’m German. When you are making a film about a thinker, it’s a challenge, since thought is invisible. But here, I had an adversary for the film [in Eichmann]. You can look at him, and in the process of thinking, you can follow her as a spectator of Eichmann’s trial.
Do you feel a need to educate the viewers about these women?
I’m not an educator, professor, missionary by any means. When I’m interested in a person, I like to make a portrait. [Arendt] is more of a portrait of a woman than a lesson.
In France, it’s actually forbidden on a poster to show someone smoking. So we had to change the poster [of Arendt]. They put a swastika there and a Nazi cross behind her. I didn’t like it at all, but in France they say all German films should be Nazi stories or ex-East German stories.
If you were to make your next film in America, what type of film would you like to do?
I never thought about it! I have never been offered one, so I’ve never thought about it, really. There are so many good filmmakers in America, I shouldn’t take their jobs when I can do my films here.
Matthew Sorrento teaches film at Rutgers University in Camden, NJ. He is the author of The New American Crime Film (McFarland, 2012) and a contributor to the forthcoming Wiley-Blackwell Companion to the War Film.