Film Review: Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt

Exceptionally rich, provocative and clarifying doc about the learned German-Jewish scholar and refugee to the U.S. who became a controversy magnet in her Eichmann trial reportage is a must for those especially interested in the Holocaust and culpability.
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Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt, a Canadian-Israeli co-production, delivers a fascinating and complex portrait of independent thinker Hannah Arendt before and after World War II, thanks to both her outspokenness and the doc’s explosion of rarely or never-before-seen archival footage of the period. There is a wealth of material here (fresh footage of anti-Semitism’s and Hitler’s rise, the ghettos, the camps, etc.) and, most relevantly, clips from Nazi criminal Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem, which Arendt attended for The New Yorker and whose coverage, suggesting him as more a non-thinker “company man” than evil-doer, lit the controversy that followed her through life. (Certainly not helping was her laying some blame for the success of the mass extermination at the feet of many Jewish leaders—whether elders or council members—in many of the larger conquered European cities.)

Appropriately, what comes alive in Vita Activa is Arendt herself, whether on camera in vintage footage, heard in her voiceovers or those from her books (Origins of Totalitarianism, Eichmann in Jerusalem, etc.) or the subject of commentary from knowledgable others (notably, her longtime assistant and academics today at universities in Tel Aviv, California, Emory, Bard, etc.). Also clarifying the woman and her ideas are many letters to and from her, also conveyed by voiceovers.

Much is covered in Arendt’s life, from her girlhood in Koenigsberg, Germany, in the early 1900s to her cherished academic mentors (renowned philosophers Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers in Freiburg and Heidelberg as she rose to PhD philosophy candidate). Heidegger became her lover and later a Nazi sympathizer who, when they reunited post-war, Arendt controversially did not condemn.

Among other war and post-war-related episodes in her life, the doc also follows her flight when war broke to France and then America, and her second marriage to German Communist and non-Jew Heinrich Blucher. But the electrifying event in this doc (and her life) is her coverage of the Jerusalem trial and the controversy that ensued.

Without prejudice, the doc confronts several of Arendt’s unsettling notions. Her famous idea of the “banality of evil” that she introduced in her best-selling Eichmann in Jerusalem book of the early ’60s is expanded as she explains that the more someone like Eichmann is superficial, the more likely he will be to yield to evil. Outspoken since childhood, Arendt, usually seen holding a cigarette, shares on German TV that even more dangerous than a bad thinking person is one, like Eichmann, who is non-thinking.

Her view of him was that of a clueless, law-abiding and clownish man who wasn’t even anti-Semitic. (He had a Jewish mistress during his time in Vienna.) This ran and still runs counter to the majority opinion that Eichmann, deemed one of the major organizers of the Holocaust and the transport of Jews, was thoroughly evil.

Arendt looms as fearless in the doc, not just because of what she dares to articulate but in the way she does it—never forcefully or with any defensiveness on her end, but only with keen intellect and the assured courage of deep conviction. Yes, viewers and others will continue today to object fiercely to her interpretations of key people and ideas, including Eichmann, some among Europe’s wartime Jewish leadership and her attitudes toward Zionism (she was bothered by its nationalistic aspect, especially the denial to Palestinians of homes they had lived in for many generations).

Filmmaker Ada Ushpizdoes a wondrous job here of organizing so much material—the old archival and the new commentary—into a remarkable whole that provokes new consideration of evil, culpability and more. Her achievement is not just one of choice in organizing this trove but of clarification and stimulation of deeper thought surrounding ideas and events.

Engaged viewers, and there will be many, will want to revisit, even own, Vita Activa. They’ll also be rewarded by another or first viewing of Hannah Arendt, Margarethe von Trotta’s recent, acclaimedbiopic starring Barbara Sukowa, which Zeitgeist, like Vita Activa, also distributes.

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