We often think of philosophers as those who sit in ivory towers unaffected by the actual world. They think their thoughts about the nature of things without really understanding what matters. But often philosophy comes out of profound experiences. Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt is a documentary about a German-Jewish philosopher who created a controversy when she covered the Adolph Eichmann trial for The New Yorker magazine and spoke of “the banality of evil.” The 2012 narrative film Hannah Arendt garnered significant critical praise.
The film follows the outline of her life—growing up in the First World War, the rise of Nazism, her education (including an affair with her teacher Martin Heidegger, who provided philosophical prestige for the Nazi regime), her eventual escape first to France then to America. This is a film made up mostly of Arendt’s own words—sometimes in archival footage of interviews, but often through readings of parts of her works or her correspondence with her mentor and friend Karl Jaspers. There are no “bumper sticker” quotes in all of this. Arendt’s experiences gave her a grounding with which to approach meaningful aspects of human life—especially the nature of evil and how totalitarianism comes to be.
For Arendt evil is not a demonic force, but the result of people—even people who are trying to be good within their framework of understanding—who fail to engage in critical thinking. It is not that people do not recognize that something is wrong, but that they find ways to justify doing that wrong as though it were right. At the Eichmann trial Arendt did not see a monster in the dock, but rather a mild-mannered bureaucrat. He was doing his job (which just happened to be overseeing the Holocaust). He claimed to not even be an anti-Semite. But he was also, in his mind, a good German.
It is difficult to judge what passion Arendt may have had for the topic based on an actress reading her works and letters. At times the film comes across as a very dispassionate discussion about something that deeply affected millions of people. I suspect, though, that in her works she does stand back a bit to strive for a detached voice. That may be part of what led to the backlash to her ideas of the banality of evil.
Evil is a difficult subject to come to terms with. Theologians and philosophers struggle to understand its very nature. This film provides some insight that can help us look at some of the questions around evil. It is not an easy film. I enjoyed classes in philosophy, but this required my attention throughout to keep up. It is one of the most cerebral films that I’ve encountered in a long time. (And I don’t think cerebral is a put down.)
Photos from Hannah Arendt Personal Archive and Zeitgeist Films