“VITA ACTIVA: THE SPIRIT OF HANNAH ARENDT”— One of the Most Influential Thinkers of the 20th Century

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“Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt”

One of the Most Influential Thinkers of the 20th Century

Amos Lassen

Hannah Arendt, the German-Jewish philosopher, caused uproar in the 1960s with the subversive concept of the “Banality of Evil” as she referred to t the trial of Adolph Eichmann, which she covered for the “New Yorker” magazine. Her private life was also quite controversial due to her early love affair with the renowned German philosopher and Nazi supporter Martin Heidegger. This new thought-provoking documentary is an intimate portrait of the whole of Arendt’s life. It takes us to places where she lived, worked, loved, and was betrayed. Arendt was a great and influential philosopher who wrote as about the open wounds of modern times. Now, probably because of the recent film by Margarethe von Trotta, a biopic, 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.

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 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. 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.

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We learn of connections between her life and her thought, we get a different look at Arendt.Ada Ushpiz’s documentary is one of the new films that examine Israel from a variety of diverse historical, cultural and political perspectives. Hannah Arendt’s work has brought about growing interest and she is presented as a flawed figure, an intellectual who defended ideas in public that she later disavowed in private. Even though some of her complex views on ideology, totalitarianism, and Jewish refugees left stateless by the Holocaust have been challenged since her death, they continue to be heard and resonate in today’s geopolitical climate.

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Arendt’s thoughts on European refugees who were made stateless by the outcome of war and their lack of rights are focused upon. The film looks at Arendt’s accomplishments and failures. Commentators take her to task for her misjudgment of Adolf Eichmann’s character, her apology for Martin Heidegger’s Nazi affiliation, and her tough and inaccurate portrayal of the Judenrat (Jewish councils that were established by the Nazis) and its leaders, which Arendt herself later repudiated. The film implies that her most famous concept, the “banality of evil,” was appropriated from her mentor, Karl Jaspers, who coined the phrase in a letter to her.

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Here we see Heidegger, her teacher and one-time lover as a sexist, selfish, vain, and pompous man, whose his love letters to Arendt are full of embarrassing romantic clichés. Heidegger was one of the most famous philosophers of the 20th century is seen calling for the “extermination of the enemy” before the Nazi rise to power. This very damning evidence of his inherent anti-Semitism is used against Arendt for her promotion of the Heidegger myth, that claimed that he was a fellow traveler of the Nazis who had been duped by Hitler’s lies. We see Arendt’s not taking Heidegger into account for his crimes is presented as one of her great moral failures.

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Arendt was an ardent Zionist in the 1930s and early ’40s but grew disillusioned with Israel and labeled the Eichmann case a “show trial” staged by the Israeli government. The film suggests that this attitude resulted from her preconceived notions about Israel that she brought with her to Jerusalem when sent there to cover the trial for the “New Yorker” and we now know that she begged to have a change to cover the Eichmann trial. The documentary shows Arendt as a philosopher whose prejudices often led her to fail.

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Nonetheless, her ideas have lost none of their potency or relevance with the passage of time. Her reflections on subjects such as the totalitarian state and the banality of evil have made her one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century. The film uses wealth of source material in a detailed examination of her convictions. We hear voiceovers as we see the photographs, home movies and other archive material, and these scenes are intercut with interviews with her contemporaries. What we really see is Arendt’s unremitting sense of displacement. During the Second World War, Arendt fled to the United States, where she felt herself to be living in exile. This is a very important concept, since she belonged to a people dismissed as “superfluous.” This was the wellspring of her theories and views about the establishment of a state of Israel, Zionism and the Holocaust. However looking at these on another level, we see they can easily be understood when used to explain the current refugee situation with millions of displaced people at the borders of Europe. The American philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler refers to Arendt’s work, saying that a society that tries to do away with plurality becomes genocidal. This documentary warns us that that if we ignore the helpless and reject critical thinking, we are bound for totalitarianism.

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“Vita Activa” will open in New York on April 6 and Los Angeles on April 29.

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