VITA ACTIVA: THE SPIRIT OF HANNAH ARENDT (dir. Ada Ushpiz): Movie review

vita-activa-film-reviewLast month, Ada Ushpiz’s documentary Vita Activa: the Spirit of Hannah Arendt was shown at the International House Philadelphia.

For many Arendt is remembered by a single phrase — “the banality of evil”, a concept she coined in her controversial book from the 1960s Eichmann in Jerusalem.

Few twentieth-century thinkers are as paradoxical as Hannah Arendt.  A German Jewish political theorist and moral philosopher, Arendt was a student and lover of Martin Heidegger, the most important philosopher of the twentieth century who supported Hitler in the 30s. She wrote her dissertation under the tutelage of Karl Jaspers, with whom she continued a lifelong friendship.  When Hitler became the Reich’s Chancellor in 1933, Arendt fled to Paris. In 1940, when the Nazis occupied France, she came to New York.

After the war, Arendt devoted her life to the problem of evil, particularly totalitarianism and the Holocaust. In Eichmann in Jerusalem, the book at the center of Ushpiz’s film, Arendt investigates Israel’s trial of the SS “desk murder” Adolf Eichmann, one of the organizers of the  “Final Solution” who masterminded the collection and transport of Europe’s Jews to the death camps.   Arendt caused an uproar for presenting Eichmann not as a anti-Semitic “monster”, but as a gray functionary, a cog in the bureaucratic machine of terror.

The film works through fragments and juxtapositions that together distill Arendt’s major ideas.  Crosscutting readings from her works and letters with archival footage, interviews with scholars and acquaintances, and present-day images of places from Arendt’s past, Ushpiz grounds Arendt’s philosophy in the context of her life and conflicting intellectual allegiances.

The past comes to life in Ushpiz’s film with uncommon immediacy. The documentary successfully layers artificial ambient sounds over silent archival images — footfalls, wind, screams. The worst of the twentieth century is spliced with sunny sequences of modern-day Germany. Young Nazi officers clown for the camera as they drive fence posts into the ground of a future concentration camp.  German camp commandants imitate Jewish victims at a party, covering their SS uniforms with mock prayer shawls made of curtains as they toast each other with shots. Jewish ghetto patrolmen club fellow Jewish inmates on Nazi orders to clear the streets. Processions of German POWs march down dusty roads, and we hear Heidegger’s love letters, beseeching his student Hannah to come to him “after 9”.    

Ushpiz’s film finds its ending in our own times.  The closing images of New York’s Arab and Latino immigrants are poignant reminders that what Arendt cherished most about America, its pluralism and diversity, are now under threat and that “totalitarian solutions” in today’s world of Trump, Putin, and Assad continue to “survive totalitarian regimes”.  The Digital Age does not cancel out evil. Rather it makes its spectacle more ubiquitous and banal.

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About the author

Lev Feigin

Lev Feigin is a Philadelphia writer, flâneur, biker and kayaker. He holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the CUNY Graduate Center and is an alumnus of The Writers Institute at the Graduate Center.