Hannah Arendt died more than forty years ago, yet the fascination she exerts over so many people does not seem to let go.
If anything, over the past few years, not only have writers, Holocaust scholars, and students of philosophy gone back to re-examine her writings, but filmmakers have joined them. In 2012, German director Margarethe von Trotta made a biopic about the writer/philosopher, called simply “Hannah Arendt,” and now Israeli director Ada Ushpiz brings us “Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt.” The film follows the German Jewish émigré from her birth in 1906 through her last days in New York, 69 years later.
Arendt had studied at many of the fine German academies and had been a protégée of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. With Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, she fled to Paris. There, she was involved in a variety of Jewish causes, including Zionist endeavors, even attending the Zionist Congress of 1935 in Switzerland. Throughout her eight years in what she described as “Jewish exile,” she wrote extensively about her feelings as a refugee, feeling “superfluous” in society. In 1939, she joined hundreds of other German Jewish exiles in a French detention camp for the so-called “stateless.” When Nazi Germany invaded France, these became Nazi transit camps, but Arendt managed to flee to Spain, then Portugal, and made her way to New York, where she would live the rest of her life.
In 1961, Arendt was happily married, teaching college in New York, and publishing philosophic works. That’s when she agreed to go to Israel to observe and report on the Eichmann trial for the New Yorker. By this time, she had achieved considerable attention as a thoughtful political theorist — but her journey to Jerusalem would change her life forever.
During the trial, she carefully observed Eichmann, caged in a glass booth built to protect him from an assassin’s bullet. Was he the monstrous technocrat behind the Final Solution and the mass murder of Jews in Europe, or was he an efficient bureaucrat, listening to orders from above, unable to think for himself, simply doing his job? Arendt struggled to understand. In her 1963 book, “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil,” she minimized Eichmann’s moral culpability for his role in the Holocaust. In so doing, she alienated many friends, colleagues, and the Jewish community at large.
The negative reaction was extensive; people were enraged, feeling that she was making excuses for Eichmann’s actions. In addition, Arendt posited that because of the highly efficient and organized nature of Jewish communal organizations in the ghettos, the Nazis actually were able to inflict greater horror and send more Jews to their death. This was seen by many as a defense of the murderer Eichmann and an attack on the Jewish victims.
To this day, Arendt’s writings remain controversial, and director Ushpiz tries to provide some understanding of who Arendt was and what in her personal life might have brought her to make such highly controversial conclusions.
Ushpiz uses Arendt’s words to narrate the documentary, bringing in a variety of scholars, former students, and other interested parties. To her credit, those interviewed provide a broad interpretation of how they view Arendt and her work. Nobody is there to lay blame, condemn, or applaud. Ushpiz helps us understand Arendt by delving into her background and life story. She also manages to pull together an exemplary collection of archival footage, though sometimes we are watching old movie footage without any clear understanding of why the filmmaker chose it, other than possibly because she had nothing else to put on screen.
The film includes interviews with Arendt herself, made for either French or German television. Arendt was truly brilliant, but her words and her attempted clarification of issues can be hard to understand. She was a great philosopher, who used nuanced language and had an historical perspective that an American viewer may struggle to understand. That’s not because it’s hard to make out her words, but because it is often difficult to comprehend the deeper meaning of those words.
“Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt” is a lengthy study of a controversial intellectual, her writings, and her philosophy. It is more than two hours long, often difficult to absorb, and at times seemed directed more to a scholarly audience than to the general public. To be sure, Arendt is not easily understood, and writer/director Ushpiz does her best to allow the viewer to grasp the complexity of this woman.
Arendt abhorred the fact that Heidegger, her great hero and former lover, wholeheartedly followed Nazi doctrine. The puzzle of who Hannah Arendt was becomes more complicated when we learn that years after the war, on a lecture tour in Germany, she went to see Heidegger, whom she supposedly despised, and instead defended him, even helping to get some of his writings published.
The film allows the critics to speak, but most important, it lets Arendt’s words speak on her behalf.
“Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt” is playing in New York at Film Forum through April 19.
Eric Goldman, an adjunct professor of cinema at Yeshiva University, teaches and lectures on Jewish cinema.