Two New European Films Show the Sad State of America's Political Cinema

hannah arendt film

The date is December 12th, 1969. At 4:37 in the afternoon, there is an explosion at the headquarters of the Banca Nazionale dell’Agricoltura in Piazza Fontana, Milan, Italy. 17 people are killed, 88 wounded. And no one has any idea who is responsible.

It’s a bit like the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, but without any of the eventual national closure in the conviction and execution of Timothy McVeigh. The Piazza Fontana bombing was also only the first major disaster in period of politically motivated violence that lasted well into the 1980s. This tumultuous decade and a half is now referred to as the “Years of Lead,” perhaps taken from the Italian title of a 1981 film by Margarethe Von Trotta. Over the past few years a number of Italian filmmakers have turned their attention to this historical whirlwind of conflict and it’s led to the revitalization not only of Italian political cinema, but Italian cinema as a whole.

The implications of that, in the context of Silvio Berlusconi and Italian television and the current turmoil in Rome is another conversation, for another time. Right now there are two European political films absolutely worth seeing, both of them concerned with questions of culpability in the murder of a great number of innocent people. The first is Marco Tullio Giordana’s “Piazza Fontana: The Italian Conspiracy,” which will be playing Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Open Roads: Italian Cinema series. The second, coincidentally, is Von Trotta’s “Hannah Arendt,” currently in limited release. Taken together, these two represent the essentials of good political cinema and could probably teach us a thing or two about how to make better political movies here in the United States.

Giordana’s approach to the events around the Piazza Fontana bombing are a bit more clear in the film’s original Italian title, which literally translates as “Novel of a Massacre.” His film has the wide scope of a work of detailed historical fiction, condensing the entire investigation down to a 129-minute running time. The attack was initially blamed on anarchists, one of whom was arrested by Italian police and subsequently murdered in their custody. The actual perpetrators of the event are officially lost to history, but unofficially there’s plenty to go on. It’s a bit like Oliver Stone’s “JFK” but with an awful lot of actual believability and the smooth, sinister style of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.”

The strength of Giordana’s method lies in his commitment to both political motivation and personal character. “Piazza Fontana” features honest elected officials alongside the almost entirely corrupt parliamentary leadership, though the overall picture is still pretty bleak. Moreover, the groups of anarchists and neo-fascists are shown to be neither unified by method nor by temperament. When Giuseppe Pinelli has his “accidental death,” there is an emotional impact alongside the political. One of the best performances of the film is that of Michela Cescon as Pinelli’s wife, a further testament to the emotional depth of a film that uses character to drive home its political narrative just as much as it uses ideology.

That said, ideological speechifying can be equally crucial. It’s the lifeblood of Von Trotta’s “Hannah Arendt,” which might otherwise have been a bit of a bland biopic. Its first hour actually does suffer from too much in the direction of Giordana’s novelization, trying to make its central genius more relatable. Barbara Sukowa’s towering performance really needs no help in bringing emotional depth to Hannah Arendt, a woman often accused of coldness by a public bent on character assassination. The attention paid to New York City’s intellectual society seems extraneous, a misguided attempt to make a more accessible biopic. Von Trotta’s best asset in this film is Arendt’s ideas, and in the latter half she runs with them.

“Hannah Arendt” focuses almost entirely on the writer’s time covering the trial of Adolph Eichmann for the New Yorker. Eichmann, as the man logistically responsible for the Nazis’ genocide of the Jewish people, was captured by Israel in Argentina in 1960 and brought to trial the following year in Jerusalem. For most observers, he was the physical incarnation of evil. For Arendt watching him in the courtroom, he was also the most mediocre of men. Her eventual essays on the trial asserted that Eichmann was first and foremost a bureaucrat and that his banality was the central characteristic of the evil of the Holocaust. This got her into an awful lot of trouble with an awful lot of people who interpreted this as a defense of Eichmann and Nazism.

In the end, it all comes down to thinking. Von Trotta only diverts from the early 1960s to flash back to Arendt’s relationship with the philosopher Martin Heidegger, who was her professor before the war. He became significant for his ideas around human thought and their relationship with “the question of Being,” and infamous for his affiliation with Nazism. The central question of Von Trotta’s film then appears to be the following: Arendt’s formulation of “the banality of evil” depends upon the absence of thought. Eichmann was able to blandly organize the massacre of millions of Jews simply because he did not think, she contends. If that is the case, then how is it possible that Heidegger, this greatest of thinkers and the man who taught Arendt how to think, became a Nazi?

The film’s response is almost as radical as the idea itself. Von Trotta shows us Heidegger teaching about thinking exclusively in the abstract. He doesn’t appear to contemplate his relationship with Nazism, or at least he doesn’t discuss it with Arendt. When she finally questions him after the war, he refuses to respond. “Hannah Arendt” does not introduce Heidegger to contradict its subject’s ideas and concepts of evil. Rather, Von Trotta is exploring the absolute horror of the unthinking man by showing how even one of the most important German philosophers of the 20th century was able to turn off his mind in response to totalitarianism. In this way, “Hannah Arendt” is engaged in a challenging relationship with the very essence of political violence even if none of the original violence itself is shown.

“Piazza Fontana” and “Hannah Arendt” are, on the surface, very different films. Yet they share a strong kinship in their commitment to interrogating the darkest of political questions. “Piazza Fontana” is concerned with the who and the how of politically-motivated violence, while “Hannah Arendt” is more concerned with the why. In a way, the latter can only exist because of prior German films that took the role of “Piazza Fontana,” wrestling with the Second World War in spite of its challenges. Italian culture, on the other hand, cannot confront the reasons for which it was torn to shreds in the 1970s without first establishing the realities of the period. This takes time, and distance.

And, finally, works like this put into perspective the ebb in political filmmaking we’re experiencing in the United States. We have not had the same violent internal convulsions as Germany or Italy, at least not in the last century. Yet there are important political subjects that demand great political cinema, particularly around warfare and economic inequality. In spite of the excellent documentaries around political themes that have come out in the last few years (“The House I Live In,” “How to Survive a Plague,” and “Free Angela and All Political Prisoners”) come to mind, fiction films have lagged.

The full scope of this problem is, like the current context of Italian cinema, a conversation for another time. Yet just look at last year’s politically adjacent Oscar movies: “Argo” is far cry from something like 1982’s “Missing,” which was actually interested in the role of the CIA in the world. “Zero Dark Thirty” had some interesting things to say but was drowned out by the inane sideshow argument over its portrayal of torture. “Lincoln,” in its insistence on praising Honest Abe’s moderation on the issue of slavery and ignoring anyone or anything reminiscent of abolitionism as a political movement, is more mild-mannered hagiography than political film.

Maybe, just maybe, the impressive and dedicated work being done in Germany and Italy these days will inspire some fiction filmmakers. Either that or “The Wolf of Wall Street” will turn out to be a brilliant and incendiary masterpiece. We shall see.