Hannah Arendt is unlikely to be a social-media star. Newly relevant forty years after her death, the German-born philosopher’s work is distinctly ill-suited to contemporary tools of relevance. Twitter’s context of no context values aphorism, parody, and potted wisdom — branded content available in bulk. The author of The Human Condition and Eichmann in Jerusalem represents no single school of thought, and her most famous work is famously misunderstood, making her ideas even less apt for consumption in easily digestible snippets than those of some of her peers (@NietzscheQuotes updates every three hours). Arendt’s independence of mind is responsible for the most brilliant and most maddening aspects of her life and her work, both of which remain uniquely difficult to parse.
With Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt, Israeli filmmaker Ada Ushpiz makes an earnest, impressively researched attempt to distill her subject. The title, in fact, belies the film’s modest stakes and rather straightforward tack: Insofar as Ushpiz succeeds in putting the most provocative, salient, and damning aspects of Arendt’s work into a lucid context, she exposes the limits of her own approach. Those limits are as common as the standard doc format she’s chosen: The film is a mix of talking-head interviews, archival footage (much of which, including that of an unidentified execution by firing squad, has an unnerving, non-sequitur quality), interviews with Arendt, and narration consisting largely of passages from Arendt’s work. The latter, paradoxically, contributes to a certain inertness; being read aloud in a documentary tends not to serve dense, philosophical writing as well as might an energetic treatment of its ideas.
Ushpiz begins where common knowledge of Arendt’s work generally ends. Published in 1963, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil consists of Arendt’s reporting on the 1961 war-crimes prosecution of the Nazi officer. Vita Activa uses as a sort of motif the phrase that came to haunt Arendt, teasing out in quotes and moments (including segments of Eichmann’s trial) the intricate philosophy it invokes. Evil is not the province of monsters, of the unspeakable, but a friend to cliché, “a surface phenomenon…the more superficial someone is the more likely he will be to yield to Evil.” This Eichmann was nothing more or less than human, not a sadist and perhaps not even an anti-Semite — but merely a functionary whose evil derived from his inability or unwillingness to think and to empathize.
Vita Activa traces the controversy Arendt provoked with this idea; even now, notes Arendt’s friend Richard Bernstein, to bring it up is to risk a brawl. Arendt changed her mind on many issues (including the Zionist movement, which she supported as a young woman), but she defended until her death her moral philosophy of evil, despite the accusations it brought: that she was a self-hating Jew, an apologist for the Nazis, that she had diminished their crimes. The Arendt of the late interviews included in the film is a figure of becalmed exasperation, frank but elusive, unsettled yet quite certain of herself.
Along with Eichmann, Ushpiz draws heavily from The Origins of Totalitarianism, the book that, given the current election season, could finally earn Arendt her own Twitter feed. Her ideas on Nazism and Stalinism offer from the far side of geopolitical and humanitarian disasters a warning of where our current moment — the Middle East refugee crisis, the so-called war on terror, Donald Trump’s candidacy — might lead. For Arendt, who fled Europe for New York City in 1941, the United States seemed an example of what a pluralist society could be, and in this offered her a spiritual as well as a physical home.
Perhaps in her hunger for that home she overlooked the obvious: If nationalism and statelessness are equally dangerous propositions, the experience of the latter may dull one to the threat of the former. The rhetoric of freedom, as Vita Activa confirms, was central to the rise of the Nazi movement. The echoes of that rhetoric in contemporary American politics seem to confirm Arendt’s suspicion that “totalitarian solutions may well survive the fall of totalitarian regimes in the form of a strong temptation, which will come up whenever it seems impossible to alleviate political, social, or economic misery in a manner worthy of man.”
The most obvious example of Arendt overlooking the obvious involves her complex relationship with German philosopher Martin Heidegger. Vita Activa lightly traces that involvement, which began when Arendt was a student of Heidegger’s, frayed when Heidegger expressed support for the Nazi party, and resumed briefly after the war; years later, Arendt worked to mend her former lover’s reputation. Ushpiz makes no excuse for her subject and offers no judgment, treating the episode as an extension of the life and mind of a woman who found in contradiction her most enduring home.
Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt
Directed by Ada Ushpiz
Opens April 6, Film Forum