'Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt': Film Review

Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films
Thoughtful and informative, if a bit scattershot in its approach.

Ada Ushpiz's documentary examines the life and ideas of the author who coined the phrase "the banality of evil."

That intellectual arguments are a tricky subject for cinema is demonstrated by Ada Ushpiz's documentary examining the life and writings of Hannah Arendt. Concentrating largely on her seminal and controversial work Eichmann in Jerusalem, which contains the phrase most closely associated with her, "the banality of evil," Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt wrestles with its unwieldy subject with only sporadic success. The film is currently receiving its U.S. theatrical premiere at NYC's Film Forum.

The Israeli filmmaker uses a variety of techniques in this examination of the German-Jewish writer (though, fortunately, no dramatizations), relying heavily on a 1964 German television interview. There are copious talking heads interviews with Arendt's friends and associates, as well as scholars who either support or oppose her ideas. And there is extensive archival footage, much of it from Eichmann's 1961 Jerusalem trial in which the former Nazi functionary, looking like a mildly flustered bureaucrat, placidly sits in a glass booth as if he was a museum display. His bland visage alone vividly exemplifies Arendt's most quoted aphorism.

We also hear lengthy excerpts from Arendt's writings, voiced by actress Alison Darcy, as well as from her emotionally charged correspondence with her second husband, Heinrich Blucher, and her lover, philosopher Martin Heidegger. The latter relationship is recounted at length, not surprisingly since Heidegger's pro-Nazi leanings were often used as a cudgel against Arendt by her detractors.

The brief snatches of the author's writings often lack sufficient context, and the frequent use of archival footage — of such things as Holocaust atrocities, Hitler delivering ranting speeches as German citizens swoon, etc. — has a generic feel. They're meant to illustrate Arendt's theories about fascism and totalitarianism, of course, but it comes across as the cinematic equivalent of a philosophical treatise presented in the form of a pictorial coffee-table book.

Despite its problematical aspects, however, Vita Activa mostly emerges as a thoughtful, well-researched examination of Arendt's ideas, which are still being debated more than 40 years after her death. It provides a crash course, however incomplete, for those interested in her work but unwilling to delve into such weighty tomes as The Origins of Totalitarianism.   

Distributor: Zeitgeist Films
Production: Intuitive Picture, AU Films
-screenwriter: Ada Ushpiz
Producers: Ina Fichman, Ada Ushpiz
Directors of photography: Itai Neeman, German Guitierrez, Philippe Lavalette
Editor: Hadas Ayalon
Composer: John Wilson

Not rated, 125 minutes