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.”
The French Capital is the Stage as Bloggeuse Jeanne Damas Tours the History of the Heritage Label
Delicate animated sketches channel Paris’ Belle Époque and light up the night sky in this new film from director Mary Clerté, dedicated to the legacy of French trunk-makers and leather goods specialist Moynat. The updated art deco imagery is inspired by the original drawings of the atelier’s one-time art director Henri Rapin, whose iconic red leather and brass-studded luggage put the brand on the map in the early part of the 20th century. The brand has been breaking ground since its inception in 1849, when founder Pauline Moynat—the only female trunk-maker in Paris—joined forces with the skilled craftsmen of the Coulembier family. Creating state-of-the-art designs using waterproofed canvas treated with tropical Gutta Percha sap, the entrepreneuse went on to win awards for her innovative 1873 British Trunk, and acclaim as the inventor of the women’s handbag in 1880, created for the famed turn-of the century actress Gabrielle Rejane. Fast forwarding to contemporary France, filmmaker Clerté casts Paris-based model, muse and fashion blogger Jeanne Damas as the modern answer to the classic Moynat woman as she explores the arts and theatre landmarks in the City of Lights, researching the role of loyal brand devotee Réjane. “The story of the brand is really modern: Pauline Moynat was a business woman who came to Paris and established herself,” muses the director, whose past work includes videos for the band Pony Pony Run Run and labels Hermès and Chloë. Set to the Montreal duo Valleys’ single “Hounds,” from their forthcoming album Are You Going To Stand There And Talk Weird All Night?, Clerté’s latest short creates an intrepid character that is as timeless as she is uniquely Parisian. “I wanted to find a way to make her alive.”
The Downtown Artist Takes Inspiration from Victorian Poetry for a Sultry New Series
White pigeons flutter above the nude silhouettes of model Arizona Muse and French actress Rebecca Dayan in these romantic new photographs from New York-based Max Snow. The monochrome images feature in a solo exhibition and a publication from the Parisian concept store Colette, both named The Lady of Shalott in honor of the 19th century poetic themes that subconsciously infuse them. “I unknowingly referenced a lot of images of artists’ interpretations of the Lady of Shalott before I even came across Lord Alfred Tennyson’s poem,” explains Snow, who has previously shown at Kathleen Cullen Fine Arts in New York and Galerie Serieuze Zaken in Amsterdam. “The idea in creating these images was to make people connect to the past—to more mythological or spiritual times.” The artist comes from a storied background, as the brother of the greatly missed art world darling Dash Snow and a member of the famed de Menil clan. He recalls meeting Vogue favorite Muse after she purchased one of his pieces at auction and came back wanting more: “I said, 'How about you pose for one and I’ll give you one for free?'” Dayan, who recently appeared in Jesse & Celeste Forever and From Paris with Love and met Snow through a mutual friend, hadn’t expected her aviary accessories. “I was naked in a tent with birds flying in every direction,” she laughs of the shoot, for which Snow used eating pigeons rescued from a Manhattan slaughterhouse. “We freed them at the end,” she says. “It was such a beautiful moment!”
The Lady of Shalott is on view at Colette, Paris, until February 2.