A New Documentary Seeks the Spirit of Hannah Arendt, But Can’t Get Past Cliché

Let’s be honest, it’s not a proud moment when the ideas and disputations of Hannah Arendt resurface with force. A debunker of myths, a scissor to ideology, an exilic thinker, her work comes alive — as what William James would call a “live option” or “live hypothesis” — in moments of political opportunism marked by rampant cliché and scapegoating. I don’t need to tell you that now is one of those moments.

What would Arendt make of the banality of Donald Trump? Of the ideological ways and means of his followers? Or America’s present disposition toward refugees and migrants? She wrote diligently on all of these subjects (banality, refugees, migrants), even if her writing, due to its almost immediate impact and influence, was quickly transformed into the sort of cliché she worked to undermine. Despite her work on revolution, Marxism, Socratic philosophy, the law — and, perhaps most importantly, on statelessness, the status of refugees, and the idea of human rights — she’s too often (and curiously) confined to her controversial Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. This is to say her spirit is sometimes trapped in a bottle.

Judging by its title, one would hope that a new documentary, Ada Ushpiz’s Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt, would seek to unleash Arendt on the world, to let her out of the bottle, precisely at a moment when her thought is badly needed. (It’s hard to think of a 20th century philosopher — or any philosopher — who is more readymade for our current predicament.) Or, short of that, it could equate “spirit” with “life” and relay Arendt’s biography: her father’s early death, her romantic and academic affair with Martin Heidegger, her exile in Paris, her American citizenship. At least it does the second of these things.

The film opens with a dark sign, a chopped-up quote/paraphrase of Eichmann in Jerusalem, lines that consider the infamous: “the banality of evil.” It goes without saying that the question of evil’s banality (which bleeds together with arguments about the explainability of Nazism) is an important one. But whether this debate (and if the film does anything, it’s to show that Arendt’s ideas on certain questions, including Eichmann’s anti-Semitism, her representation of the Judenrat, her statements on Heidegger’s complicity with Nazism, are at least a matter of debate) can be done justice in a documentary is perhaps an overwhelming question. (Just ask Claude Lanzmann or Alain Resnais.) “We’re simply not equipped to deal on a human and political level with a guilt that is beyond crime and an innocence that is beyond goodness or virtue,” Arendt wrote to her teacher Karl Jaspers before changing her mind, an act which required writing a book and not a two-hour, PBS-style documentary.

The film’s sense of disproportion struck me during a moment of documentary footage of a man dying by firing squad, one that seemed curiously detached from the chatter of the talking heads, which here include a number of former students, friends, and opponents. (And also Judith Butler, whose commentary seems appropriately exasperated.) As Arendt states herself in the film, she left Germany fairly early, and her experience was more one of exile and its vicissitudes. Eichmann and totalitarianism were a fascination.

Still, the film works when Arendt is able to speak in her own voice, whether by letter or in television clips. For a woman who is too often seen as a commentator on banality who fell in love with banal men, Arendt is often putting them in their place. She chides Karl Jaspers for pretending there is a German spirit outside of its language; she likewise chafes against the work of Max Weber, who forebodingly said he would “deal with the devil” to make Germany great again. Hearing such words, how can one not think of that human bumper sticker Donald Trump, with his bid to “make America great” through The Art of the Deal?

Vita Activa is also strong when it cites Arendt on matters of ideological rigidity, which is appropriate, since its title references this aspect of her work. No friend to dead language or “superficiality,” Arendt instead favored the intellectual limberness of critical thinking (and not what often passes for it). If thinking can be dangerous, she says in the film, “non-thinking is even more dangerous.” Along these lines, the non-thought of, say, Trump’s infomercial refrains, reveals itself — it’s hard not to think of Trump when Arendt says of Eichmann: “He is an intelligent person who has that dumbness.”

But if we’re going to capture “the spirit” of Arendt, as I said above, it seems odd to restrict it to questions of evil, especially in the midst of an historic refugee crisis. In a number of recent books, Arendt’s importance on this subject is clear. From Ayten Gündogdu’s Rightlessness in an Age of Rights: Hannah Arendt and the Contemporary Struggles of Migrants:

Contemporary manifestations of rightlessness demand an Arendtian critical inquiry that grapples with the perplexities of human rights… Arendt’s account points to the need for a critical inquiry that carefully examines the perplexities in existing human rights institutions, laws, norms, and practices to understand the contemporary problems and struggles of asylum seekers, refugees, and undocumented immigrants.

Should the US take in refugees? Of course. Why are there so many? What is the crisis’ root cause? These are more difficult concerns, Arendt would say, questions that require thought-in-motion, the debunking of clichés — vita activa. She wouldn’t want us debating the banality of evil in perpetuity.