The German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt caused an uproar in the 1960s by coining the subversive concept of the “Banality of Evil” when referring to the trial of Adolph Eichmann, which she covered for the New Yorker magazine. Her private life was no less controversial thanks to her early love affair with the renowned German philosopher and Nazi supporter Martin Heidegger.
A new documentary about Hannah Arendt, one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century, is available from Zeitgeist Film’s as a home DVD release.
This thought provoking and spirited documentary, with its abundance of archival materials, offers an intimate portrait of the whole of Arendt’s life, traveling to places where she lived, worked, loved, and was betrayed, as she wrote about the open wounds of modern times.
The film was an official selection of the Jerusalem, Munich and Rotterdam Film Festivals, had a very successful theatrical run in fifty-two cities in the U.S. in 2016 and was a New York Times Critic Pick.
NY Times chief film critic A.O. Scott called the film “a vigorous and thoughtful new documentary… a broad and rich portrait of an intellectual… VITA ACTIVA, while it will surely satisfy and provoke students of 20th century intellectual history, feels more urgent than most documentaries of its kind… (and) includes some especially chilling implications for the current state of American politics.”
Through her books, which are still widely read, and the recent release of Margarethe von Trotta’s biopic Hannah Arendt (also a Zeitgeist Films release) there is renewed interest in Arendt throughout the world, especially among young people who find her insights into the nature of evil, totalitarianism, ideologies, and the perils faced by refugees, more relevant than ever.
Hannah Arendt speaks at about 1:07 of this video.
An Interview with Ada Ushpiz, Director
By Melanie Goodfellow
Documentary film-maker Ada Ushpiz tells Screen about charting the life and fertile mind of a great thinker in her new film Vita Activa, The Spirit Of Hannah Arendt.
When Ada Ushpiz’s timely documentary Vita Activa, The Spirit O f Hannah Arendt, exploring the roots and legacy of the legendary philosopher’s thinking, premiered at Munich International Film Festival earlier this year it played to a packed-out theatre. “There was not a ticket to be had,” says respected film-maker Ushpiz, whose credits include Good Garbage, Desert Brides and Detained. Today’s screening at Jerusalem Film Festival, where the film is playing in the documentary competition, is also sold out.
“They’re not just coming for the documentary,” declares Ushpiz. “They’re also drawn by the figure of Hannah Arendt. She remains as popular, if not more popular, than when she was alive because she was ahead of her time.”
“She is beyond post-modernism. She was a thinking person. She didn’t subscribe to any set doctrine or school of thought but based her writings on experience and what was really happening. She had the ability to universalise her personal experience.”
Arendt’s writings, notes the film-maker, have influenced movements as diverse as Poland’s Solidarity and the pro-democracy Arab Spring. To this day, they also remain a source of inspiration for the Jewish secular movement. The philosopher’s life-long defence of the need for a plurality of thought and voices makes Arendt’s work particularly timely, Ushpiz adds.
In Vita Activa, The Spirit O f Hannah Arendt, she hones in on Arendt’s early writings, focusing in particular on her most famous work, Eichmann In Jerusalem, based on the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961, for his role as an administrator supporting the deportation and extermination of Jews during the Holocaust.
It was in this work that Arendt crystallised her theory about the “banality of evil”, stemming from Eichmann’s assertion that he wasn’t guilty because he had simply been carrying out orders. “I came to the whole thing because I was intrigued by the idea of the banality of evil,” says Ushpiz. “The more I live in this world, the more I believe it is relevant.”
The documentary traces how Arendt’s thinking and writing grew out of her experiences growing up in Germany, leaving the country during the rise of the Nazi party and subsequently living a peripatetic life across Europe.
She touched down in Prague, Geneva and Paris, and was briefly interned by the Nazis in France before fleeing to the US in 1941. This period in Arendt’s life resulted in her writings on what it meant to be a refugee.
Her theory that stateless people find themselves “superfluous” to society remains as relevant now as it did at the time of its formulation in the late 1940s.
Ushpiz’s film also touches on Arendt’s complex relationship with her philosophy professor Martin Heidegger, who was later discovered to be a Nazi sympathiser.
“Her relationship with Heidegger was complicated,” says the director. “Researchers have recently come across lectures he gave in 1933 and 1934 while he was the rector of the University of Freiburg. He speaks in real Nazi language, it’s really terrible.”
Vita Activa intercuts archival audio and video footage of Adolf Hitler and his military chief Hermann Göring, 1930s Europe, refugee conveys, the horrors uncovered in post-war Europe and the Eichmann trial with contemporary interviews with academics who either knew Arendt or have studied her writings in depth.
Arendt’s words on the subject of being a refugee, for example, run over footage of people being loaded into lorries, a soup kitchen for Jewish refugees in Paris in the 1930s and images of Hitler addressing his followers.
Where possible, Arendt’s story is told through her own words, either by an actress reading her writings and letters, or through television interviews. “I did a lot of interviews but decided in the end it was important for her to tell her own story, through her own words, either in interview or her writing,” explains Ushpiz. “She writes very emotionally, which is nice.”
Having spent five years researching, financing and producing the documentary, Ushpiz says she would like to make a second feature that would examine Arendt’s work in the final decade of her life, and its impact in the subsequent decades. “For me,” concludes Ushpiz, “the work of her final years was in many ways even more interesting.”
Ada Ushpiz, Director
Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York: The Viking Press, 1963. Originally published in New Yorker magazine, Arendt’s narrative stirred much controversy because it charged Jewish leaders with complicity in the destruction of their own communities. Despite historical inaccuracies, the book articulates an important side of the debate that the trial engendered.
Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. 2nd rev. ed., Cleveland and New York: World (Meridian Paperbacks), 1958. Analysis of the genesis and nature of Nazi and Stalin totalitarianism.
Arendt, Hannah. Anti-Semitism. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968.
Arendt shows the central importance of anti-Semitism to the ideology and of concentration camps in the organization of the totalitarian system.