With Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt, Israeli filmmaker Ada Ushpiz makes an earnest, impressively researched attempt to
Ushpiz begins where common knowledge of Arendt’s work generally ends. Published in 1963, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil consists of Arendt’s reporting on the 1961 war-crimes prosecution of Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann. Vita Activa uses as a sort of motif the phrase that came to haunt Arendt, teasing out in quotes and moments (including segments of Eichmann’s trial) the intricate philosophy it invokes. Evil is not the province of monsters, of the unspeakable, but a friend to cliché, “a surface phenomenon. … The more superficial someone is, the more likely he will be to yield to Evil.” This Eichmann was nothing more or less than human, not a sadist and perhaps not even an anti-Semite — but merely a functionary whose evil derived from his inability or unwillingness to think and to empathize.
Vita Activa traces the controversy Arendt provoked with this idea; even now, notes Arendt’s friend Richard Bernstein, to bring it up is to risk a brawl. Arendt changed her mind on many issues (including the Zionist movement, which she supported as a young woman) but defended until her death her moral philosophy of evil, despite the accusations it brought: that she was a self-hating Jew, an apologist for the Nazis, that she had diminished their crimes. The Arendt of the late interviews included in the film is a figure of becalmed exasperation, frank but elusive, unsettled yet quite certain of herself.
Along with Eichmann, Ushpiz draws heavily from The Origins of Totalitarianism, the book that, given the current election season, could finally earn Arendt her own Twitter feed. Her ideas on Nazism and Stalinism offer from the far side of geopolitical and humanitarian disasters a warning of where our current moment — the Middle East refugee crisis, the so-called war on terror and Donald Trump's candidacy — might lead. For Arendt, who fled Europe for New York City in 1941, the United States seemed an example of what a pluralist society could be, and in this offered her a spiritual as well as a physical home.
Perhaps in her hunger for that home she overlooked the obvious: If nationalism and statelessness are equally dangerous propositions, the experience of the latter may dull one to the threat of the former. The rhetoric of freedom, as Vita Activa confirms, was central to the rise of the Nazi movement. The echoes of that rhetoric in contemporary American politics seem to confirm Arendt’s suspicion that “totalitarian solutions may well survive the fall of totalitarian regimes in the form of a strong temptation, which will come up whenever it seems impossible to alleviate political, social or economic misery in a manner worthy of man.”
The most obvious example of Arendt overlooking the obvious involves her complex relationship with German philosopher Martin Heidegger. Vita Activa lightly traces that involvement, which began when Arendt was a student of Heidegger’s, frayed when Heidegger expressed support for the Nazi party and resumed briefly after the war; years later, Arendt worked to mend her former lover’s reputation. Ushpiz makes no excuse for her subject and offers no judgment, treating the episode as an extension of the life and mind of a woman who found in contradiction her most enduring home.