#Review Vita Activa The Spirit of Hannah Arendt

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Vita Activa The Spirit of Hannah Arendt, written and directed by Ada Ushpiz, is a riveting documentary on the life and times of Hannah Arendt, one of the world’s great female philosophers of the 20th century.  Arendt was an assimilated German Jew who had the prescience of mind to flee Nazi Germany illegally to France in 1933, and in 1940, while interned at Gurs Camp, a French concentration camp for German refugees, she escaped again before the German occupation of France.

Arendt published works include but limited to Eichmann in Jerusalem:  A Report on the Banality of Evil, The Origins of Totalitarianism, The Human Condition, On Revolution, and The Jew as Pariah: Jewish Identity and Politics in the Modern Age.  Arendt studied under the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, a controversial figure, who on Hitler’s rise to power lent his support to Nazi ideology.  Following the Second World War, Heidegger neither apologized nor expressed regret for his actions.   The film reveals Arendt not only had a sexual relationship with Heidegger when she was his student but after the war renewed her relationship with him, and defended him describing his affiliation with Nazism as a personal error, which has been referred to as the Heidegger myth.

Like Heidegger, the film reveals that Arendt herself was a controversial figure much maligned within the Jewish American community, in Jewish communities in Europe and Israel, and by holocaust survivors for her critical take on the Holocaust as not a legacy of anti-Semitism and the most horrible pogrom in Jewish history but as a crime against humanity perpetuated against the body of the Jewish people, which she considered an attack against human diversity.

Ushpiz has created a powerful visual memoir of Hannah Arendt’s life and the importance of her political thoughts and ideas in our post-modern world.  The filmmaker weaves together excerpts from Arendt’s works, her mother’s diary, extensive found footage spanning from early images of Konigsberg 1906, the year Arendt was born, to clips of the Eichmann trial 1961 together with photographs of Arendt  from her childhood to her senior years, photographs of Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, a 1964 German TV interview with Hannah Arendt, a 1973 French TV interview, radio interviews 1964, an interview with her friend Prof. Hans Jonas, contemporary images of Marburg University and Heidelberg University, Germany, narration of her correspondence in particular to her former teacher and friend German philosopher Karl Jaspers, narration of the personal letters of Heidegger to Arendt, her correspondence between herself and Heinrich Blucher, a German, who was to become her second husband, and first person interviews of friends such as Professor Richard Bernstein, Jerome Kohn, her former assistant, former student, Leon Botstein, Heidegger’s grand-daughter, Gertrude Heidegger, Arendt’s niece, Edna Brocke, many academics from the United States to Israel and Shoah writers to frame and contextualize her life and political thoughts within an historical perspective.

I found it extremely stimulating and went in search of Arendt’s books to read.  I highly recommend Vita Activa The Spirit of Hannah Arendt for it’s not just an excellent documentary that creates an intimate and moving portrait of Hannah Arendt, an extraordinary independent thinker, writer, philosopher and political theorist of the 20th century, but shines a light on the relevance of her ideas and concepts such as “The Banality of Evil” in the world today, which she coined to describe the phenomenon of Eichmann, the prevalence of totalitarian elements in non-totalitarian regimes, the danger of any ideology, and the need for pluralism.

VITA ACTIVA: THE SPIRIT OF HANNAH ARENDT will be playing at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema (June 10-16). Click here to purchase tickets


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