The New Yorkers

Barbara Sukowa On the Legacy of Fellow Empire State German, Hannah Arendt

Bremen-born, award-winning actress Barbara Sukowa opens up about her new role playing the acclaimed German-American political theorist and title character in Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt. The film centers on the Jewish philosopher’s response to the 1961 trial of former SS officer Adolf Eichmann in Israel, which she wrote for The New Yorker and had published as Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil in 1963. These powerful images of the Fassbinder-muse and wife of artist Robert Longo—the couple live together in Brooklyn’s desirable Ditmas Park—were captured by French photographer Brigitte Lacombe, who is known for her portraits on movie sets, in her personal New York studio. Novelist Rebecca Godfrey, whose second novel The Dilettante is forthcoming from Knopf, stopped by the shoot to chat with the German actress and explore Arendt’s cultural significance.

Rebecca Godfrey: What interested you about Hannah Arendt?

Barbara Sukowa: I was really interested in challenging this preconception that intellectual women are  cold and unemotional. People reproached Arendt for being unemotional, but when writing Eichmann in Jerusalem, she felt that there were no emotions were adequate to the horror of what the Nazis had done. For her, any display of emotion would have seemed fake, or not appropriate. But in her life, she was emotional. Mary McCarthy said, “She had a genius for friendship.” She was a very loyal friend, and I think she expected loyalty from her friends, and was incredibly disappointed when they didn’t stand by her.

RG: Your physical transformation into Arendt is quite stunning.

BS: I studied her gestures, the movement of her mouth; she had a very pronounced way of talking. We even tried some prosthetics with cheeks and the nose and eyebrows. But Margarethe [von Trotta] decided, “This film is not about what she looks like. This is about what she has to say.” And that kind of impersonation can be irritating and distracting. So in the end, I just put on a dark wig and dark contact lenses.

RG: In Hollywood films, an intelligent woman often must be stern, even dour, but you allow this iconic intellectual to also be witty, charismatic, and incredibly attractive to her students and colleagues.

BS: There’s this idea in movies that if people attract other people, they have to be pretty. That’s really not the case. Hannah Arendt attracted a lot of men and passion because she was a passionate person. Thinking was really a passion for her. It was not something cold. It was something that she loved to do. She believed in it so much. She thought: this is a thing of the highest order.

RG: There seems to be a real hunger for more complicated, flawed female characters on screen, which we’re seeing on shows like Homeland and Girls.

BS: It’s about time. It’s so weird how, on screen, women are so often smoothed out. I think there’s a difficulty accepting that people are contradictory. The Nazis who killed women and children in the day went home and wrote love letters to their wives, or played with their children. People are really complicated and we just have this desire to pretend that isn’t the case.

RG: The film uses actual footage of Eichmann at his trial. Had you seen this before?

BS: I purposely didn’t watch the footage of him before we shot the scene. I wanted to have the same experience she had seeing him for the first time. She thought he was such a mediocre guy, a bureaucrat. My reaction was different. When I saw him, I felt there was something destroyed and neurotic about him.

RG: Why do you think she was so surprised by the controversy the New Yorker article on Eichmann incited?

BS: She hoped a fierce intellectual debate would happen, but it didn’t. To people who endured this incredible traumatic experience of the Holocaust, whose families were murdered, whose parents were murdered, the word ‘banality’ is not something that flies with them, you know? She believed that if people were a victim of a terrible horror, they’d rather be a victim of someone demonic or satanic than to say to themselves, in fact, I’m a victim of that little guy, that little asshole. She thought it was important to put that out there but she did not foresee how hurtful that was, that it was just like putting a hand in the wound. 

RG: In the film, we see how loyal, and in love, her husband is, which is also something we don’t often see in film—a happy marriage.

BS: She came from a bourgeois, very educated, Jewish background. Her husband, Heinrich Blucher, was a self-taught man; he was a Communist. He never published, but he was still very inspiring to her. She was devastated when he died. People say Heidegger was the big love of her life, but I think that was just youth. Her husband was her real love.

RG: What brought you to live in New York?

BS: I came through my husband Robert Longo, in 1992. So I came voluntarily, whereas Arendt was an exile. It’s funny because there are observations she made about New York in the 1940s that are still valid today. She said Americans have no musse, which means leisure or spare time. Americans can’t sit still. She meant New Yorkers, of course. People here go to a restaurant. Finish the meal. The waiter brings the bill and you leave. In Germany, you finish eating and then you drink another glass of wine, then you talk. She was missing this and I miss it too.

RG: Do you think it’s possible today for a public intellectual to have the same impact as Arendt did in her time?

BS: Today, the work has to be provocative. It has to deal with sex. That’s when people wake up—when it hits a shame nerve. There’s also this constant drumming up of emotions and it must be deadening. You see it with the Boston bombing TV coverage. How do you feel? What did you feel when you saw the blood? Please, please give me emotion. What can still hit you if you’re so overloaded? I’m always shocked, on MSNBC or Fox, when these pundits talk over each other. They are just thinking of their own thoughts and who gets the most camera time. It’s disgusting. They are like five-year olds. For Arendt, listening was important. She was able to say: “Let’s talk. Let’s disagree. And then let’s go out for dinner.”

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