Monday, April 04, 2016

Vita Activa: Hannah Arendt and Banality Revisited

Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism is one of the most significant analyses of National Socialism and Communism published in the Twentieth Century, but all anyone ever wants to talk about is the “Banality of Evil” and her affair with Martin Heidegger. In a way, Origins prefigured Jeanne Kirkpatrick’s influential Dictatorships and Double Standards, arguing Stalin and Hitler were different than garden variety autocrats, because they sought to utterly control all aspects of the individual’s existence rather than merely monopolizing political power. Unfortunately, it is once again all about Eichmann and Heidegger when Ada Ushpiz selectively surveys the philosopher’s life and work in Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York at Film Forum.

Arendt wrote significant work studying the act of revolution, using the American and French Revolutions as case studies, but Ushpiz almost exclusively refracts Arendt through the prisms of the Holocaust and Israel. In fact, probably eighty percent of the film’s visuals are drawn from archival video of National Socialist Germany. At least, she does not bury her big “scoop,” starting the film with narration of Arendt’s correspondence with her mentor Karl Jaspers shortly after the end of the war, in which he used the term “banality of evil” well before she published Eichmann in Jerusalem.

We get some biography and an awkward attempt to chase contemporary relevancy with her writings on the plight of stateless refugees, before the film settles into extended sequences on her complicated relationship with Martin Heidegger and her celebrated and scorned account of the Adolf Eichmann trial. Unfortunately, aside from some newly discovered Heidegger lectures that were horrifyingly anti-Semitic, Ushpiz really does not bring much to the discussion of either topic that is new and fresh.

Frankly, Vita Activa will feel like a rehash to anyone who saw Margarethe von Trotta’s biopic, Hannah Arendt. Of course, it rather made sense for von Trotta to focus on Eichmann in Jerusalem, because it held such dramatic implications for her life. However, in a documentary like Vita Activa, shortchanging the breadth and extent of Arendt’s philosophy and scholarship is very nearly a crime against the intellect.

That is a real shame, because Arendt’s work deserves a documentary that is willing to fully engage with it. Instead, Ushpiz cherry-picks the hot button greatest hits. What a wasted opportunity. There are a few nice moments with her former assistant that help humanize the seemingly unapproachable public intellectual, but those are too few and far between. Read Origins (it also has a lot of good stuff on imperialism for leftists) and wait for a better Arendt doc. For those who are obsessed with the Banality of Evil concept, Vita Activa opens this Wednesday (4/6) at Film Forum.