Jazz, film, and improvised culture.
Vita Activa: Hannah Arendt and Banality Revisited
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.
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.
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.
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.
Labels: Documentary, Hannah Arendt