What’s a Friend to Do?

Dispatches from the New York Jewish Film Festival

Light up a cigarette. Or, better yet, have some charming, young male student acolyte do it for you. There will be smoke in your eyes after you see “Hannah Arendt,” the 2012 German biopic directed by feminist auteur Margarethe von Trotta and starring Barbara Sukowa as Arendt and Janet McTeer as her dear friend Mary McCarthy.

The film’s New York premiere closed the New York Jewish Film Festival to a full house Jan. 24. Its commercial run opens at the Film Forum in New York May 29, followed by national release.

“Arendt” is a sexy film which wants to be a film about ideas.

Retelling the well-known story of the furor created by Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963), “Arendt” does so through the lens of friendship and its limits, shot with a “Mad Men” aesthetic in Manhattan and Jerusalem. Dialogue is in English and German, with subtitles as needed.

Arendt, a German-Jewish refugee from Nazism, rose to prominence among the largely Jewish and male group of New York public intellectuals with The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), a penetrating study of Nazism, Stalinism, and the modern state. She taught at the New School for Social Research and at the University of Chicago. Eichmann, Arendt’s report of the 1961 trial, set these intellectuals on edge because of the work’s charge that Jewish leaders had collaborated with the Nazis in the destruction of the Jews and that Eichmann was not a murderous anti-Semite. Arendt depicted him as an ordinary man following bureaucratic orders. His compliance was evil’s “banality.”