Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt
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