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‘Hannah Arendt,’ ‘The Act of Killing’: Inside the minds of mass killers

In “Hannah Arendt” BarbarSukowplays German-born scholar totalitarianism who covered Adolph Eichmann trial.

In “Hannah Arendt,” Barbara Sukowa plays the German-born scholar of totalitarianism who covered the Adolph Eichmann trial.

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Hannah Arendt Barbara Sukowa

Heinrich Blucher Axel Milberg

Mary McCarthy Janet McTeer

Lotte Kohler Julia Jentsch

Martin Heidegger Klaus Pohl

Zeitgeist Films presents a film directed by Margaretha von Trotta and written by Pamela Katz and von Trotta. In English and German, with English subtitles. Running time: 109 minutes. No MPAA rating. Opens Friday at Renaissance Place Cinema.


Drafthouse Films presents a documentary written and directed by Joshua Oppenheimer. In Indonesian with English subtitles. Running time: 122 minutes. No MPAA rating (contains staged historical acts of torture and murder). Opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre.

Updated: September 17, 2013 7:08AM

Two powerful films revisit mass murders by taking us inside the minds of a philosopher and the perpetrators. Margarethe von Trotta’s drama “Hannah Arendt” and Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary “The Act of Killing” (both screened earlier at the Gene Siskel Film Center) now get their Chicago area theatrical releases at the Renaissance Place Cinema and Music Box Theatre, respectively.

“Hannah Arendt” is another portrait of a German woman by the German director of “Rosa Luxemburg” and “Vision”; German actress Barbara Sukowa played both the Marxist theorist and the Catholic mystic. Now she re-creates Hannah Arendt, the Jewish scholar of totalitarianism who was born in Germany and taught at the University of Chicago in the ’60s.

Screened last March at the European Union Film Festival, this compelling biopic shows Arendt covering the Adolph Eichmann trial in Jerusalem in 1961, mostly from the press room where she could smoke, and the ensuing debate when the New Yorker magazine published her series of five articles in 1963. Eichmann, hung in 1962, appears in archival footage of the historic trial. “He’s a nobody,” Arendt diagnoses the Nazi bureaucrat. “He was simply unable to think.”

Attempting to get into Arendt’s head, Von Trotta cannot put on screen an odd sensation Arendt shared in a letter to her friend Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer) while writing “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil”: “I wrote this book in a curious state of euphoria.” Like “A Hidden Method,” David Cronenberg’s drama about Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, “Hannah Arendt” takes seriously the life of the mind.

“Why do people watch films about Nazis?” asks Anwar Congo, an Indonesian killer of communists in “The Act of Killing.” “To see power and sadism!” he tells director Joshua Oppenheimer.

In 1965, paramilitary death squads “exterminated” over a million countrymen. Never prosecuted, these now elderly men live as folk heroes in North Sumatra.

“I felt as though I had walked into Germany 40 years after the Holocaust, only to find the Nazis were in power,” Oppenheimer told Asia Times Online. Screened last April at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, this stunning “documentary of the imagination” shows Anwar and other thugs staging scenes of torture and murder for the camera.

A film buff idolizing and imitating Hollywood gangsters, Anwar once scalped tickets outside cinemas but lost income when the Communist Party of Indonesia began limiting the import of the popular American films.

Anwar sits his grandsons on his lap to watch him play a communist strangled by wire, the same technique he used hundreds of times. “It shows exactly what it’s like to be me,” he says. He also plays a man he beheaded. Will this end his nightmares?

The cinematic coup de grace is a fantasy sequence. Smiling dancers emerge from the lips of a giant cement fish. By a waterfall, to the tune of “Born Free,” Anwar is awarded a medal from a former victim: “For executing me and sending me to heaven. Thank you a thousand times for everything.”

Bill Stamets is a Chicago free-lance reviewer and writer.

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