Vita Activa: The Spirit of Han­nah Arendt

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - — Jonathan Richards

VITA ACTIVA: THE SPIRIT OF HAN­NAH ARENDT, doc­u­men­tary, not rated, in English, He­brew, Ger­man, and French, with sub­ti­tles, The Screen, 3 chiles

A movie about Han­nah Arendt is a movie about the power of thought. One of the out­stand­ing philo­soph­i­cal and crit­i­cal minds of the 20th cen­tury, she achieved her great­est pop­u­lar (or un­pop­u­lar) fame with her cov­er­age for The New Yorker mag­a­zine of the 1961 war-crimes trial of Adolf Eich­mann (later pub­lished in book form as Eich­mann in Jerusalem). With her as­sess­ment that Eich­mann was not a par­tic­u­larly re­mark­able in­di­vid­ual but merely a col­or­less, thought­less cog in an evil ma­chine, she alien­ated a swath of the Jewish com­mu­nity. She drew more ire when she laid some re­spon­si­bil­ity as well at the door of the Jewish coun­cils (Ju­den­räte) who co­op­er­ated with the Nazis. And she came up with the tag “the ba­nal­ity of evil.” It’s a phrase as in­deli­bly iden­ti­fied with Arendt as is “Veni, vidi, vici” with Julius Cae­sar or “Let’s play two” with Ernie Banks. In her re­lent­less as­sault on cliché, a He­brew Univer­sity pro­fes­sor sug­gests in this film, “It could be she her­self cre­ated a new cliché.”

But this doc­u­men­tary from Ada Ush­piz cov­ers a lot more ground than the Eich­mann trial. We see home movies from Arendt’s Ger­man child­hood and ado­les­cence. We hear love let­ters be­tween Arendt and Martin Hei­deg­ger, her phi­los­o­phy pro­fes­sor and lover, who later dis­il­lu­sioned her by em­brac­ing the Nazis, and let­ters be­tween Arendt and her sub­se­quent teacher and fa­ther fig­ure, Karl Jaspers. We learn of her dis­ap­point­ing first marriage and her meet­ing in the Paris refugee com­mu­nity with the love and in­tel­lec­tual com­pan­ion of her life, Hein­rich Blücher. We get a lot of in­put and opin­ion from Arendt’s friends, en­e­mies, col­leagues, and for­mer stu­dents, in­clud­ing Leon Bot­stein, pres­i­dent of Bard Col­lege, which hosts the Arendt ar­chives. We see ex­ten­sive news­reel cov­er­age of the Eich­mann trial, footage of Hitler and of Hei­deg­ger, and film clips of the era be­tween the wars (dur­ing which Arendt was ma­tur­ing as a thinker), ex­pertly edited in to give a you-are-there con­text to the world that was de­vel­op­ing in the af­ter­math of World War I. Ush­piz sug­gests an un­set­tling cor­re­la­tion be­tween that world and our world to­day. With des­per­ate refugee pop­u­la­tions again on the move and find­ing an in­creas­ingly cold wel­come, with mas­sive crowds roar­ing at emo­tional po­lit­i­cal ral­lies here and abroad, con­di­tions may be ripe for another round. There was dan­ger, as Arendt saw it, in “an un­wa­ver­ing faith in an ide­o­log­i­cal, fic­ti­tious world.”

There are some fas­ci­nat­ing ex­cerpts from tele­vi­sion in­ter­views with Arendt, and her rich, warm, Ger­man-ac­cented voice and per­son­al­ity make all the more puz­zling Ush­piz’s de­ci­sion to use an Amer­i­can voice-over (Ali­son Darcy) for Arendt’s let­ters. If thought is ac­tion, as Arendt pro­posed (her book The Hu­man Con­di­tion posited the el­e­ments of the vita activa as la­bor, work, and ac­tion), then this is an ac­tion movie to ri­val any­thing from Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger.

Con­sid­er­ing the hu­man con­di­tion: Han­nah Arendt

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