The Idea of a Common World: Ada Ushpiz’s "Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt"

All photographs courtesy of Zeitgeist Films and the Hannah Arendt Private Archive. All rights reserved.

FOUR YEARS AGO, Margarethe von Trotta’s biopic, Hannah Arendt, offered a sympathetic, though not especially innovative, cinematic portrait of the controversial 20th century-political theorist, whose occasionally inflammatory writing often made her the subject of scathing criticism. Ali Arikan noted in his review that the film was “not so much interested in Arendt’s political theories” as in her character as an outcast and survivor. “It’s perhaps a safer way in which to deal with Arendt’s legacy,” he concluded, since “a fictional account could never do [her theories] justice.” Now, the Israeli filmmaker Ada Ushpiz put Arendt’s complex writing and thinking at the center of the story in her new documentary Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt. The result is both impressive and provocative. While von Trotta attempted a filmic representation of thinking, Ushpiz undertakes an even more daunting task: to render Arendt’s convoluted, dense, and sometimes prolix writing more comprehensible through film — to clarify her thinking around concepts such as “the banality of evil” and the annihilation of thinking by Nazi ideology — while simultaneously covering, in broad strokes, the biographical facts of Arendt’s life. As a documentary about Arendt’s words and life, the film reaches for an interpretation of both. Neither a simple reproduction nor an avant-garde experimentation with form or content, the film is “an attempt at understanding what at first and even second glance appeared simply outrageous.” (Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism). Mostly, it succeeds as an introduction to this controversial, and not easily categorized, political theorist’s work.

Vita ActivaVita Activa takes viewers on a two-hour long journey into the heart of Arendt’s thinking about the question of evil. Ushpiz creates an expansive intellectual scaffolding to support the film’s narrative of the evolution of Arendt’s thinking, skillfully interweaving excerpts from her personal correspondence — primarily with Karl Jaspers, her teacher and life-long friend, and with Arendt’s second husband, the autodidact Heinrich Blucher — with interviews and extended passages from several of her major works (including Eichmann in Jerusalem, The Origins of Totalitarianism, The Human Condition, as well as Arendt’s less cited Denktagebuch or “thinking journal”), while putting her most notorious, and often misunderstood, phrase, “the banality of evil,” at the film’s center. She layers on archival footage of the Eichmann trial, interviews with Arendt, and others who knew her, along with contemporary voices, both of supporters and detractors, explicating the fundaments of Arendt’s political theory. Yet, because Ushpiz dispenses with traditional narration, more than anything, Arendt’s own words (in some minor ways, occasionally modified for clarification) must carry the film’s narrative arc forward. “Eichmann was quite intelligent, but he had that dumbness. It was that dumbness that was so infuriating and that was what I meant by ‘banality.’ It has no depth; it isn’t demonic.” Arendt is speaking in a 1964 interview on German television as we watch trial footage of Eichmann. His face twitches; he turns his gaze away. “It’s simply the unwillingness to ever imagine what others are going through.”

Ushpiz, underscoring her primary interest in Arendt’s ideas and their enduring relevance, opens her film not with images, but with words on the screen: “The Banality of Evil […] is at the center of a global moral and political debate spanning more than half a century […] Hannah Arendt passed away in 1975, never experiencing the lingering relevance of her ideas.” These key points then appear in succession: “The prevalence of totalitarian elements in non-totalitarian regimes; the danger of ideology, any ideology; the need for pluralism; the Banality of Evil in the world today.” Fading from view, the words are replaced by grainy images of Jewish survivors in some Eastern European town carefully placing the dead, long abandoned in mass graves, into makeshift coffins; a long funeral procession winds its way past somber spectators and into a cemetery where the dead are given a dignified burial. The scene is 1945, the end of World War II in Europe. Hannah Arendt is alive and living in America. “Here we have to see what we can now rebuild out of the chaos,” Karl Jaspers writes to his former student upon learning she survived. But the same worry can as easily be directed to us: What can we build out of the chaos of our present? Might Hannah Arendt’s writing help us think through the burden of both the distant and more immediate past in our own present?
Nearly bookending the film are disturbing images of “stateless” refugees and others made “superfluous” by cataclysmic events of both the 20th and 21st centuries. “Once they had left their homeland, they remained homeless, once they had left their state they became stateless; once they had been deprived of their human rights, they were rightless, the scum of the earth.” (Hannah Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism) This juxtaposition visually sutures the chaos brought on by the massive displacement and forced migration of peoples that occurred in the aftermath of World War I, resulting from the political failure to forge an adequate response to post-war social and economic crises, with the rapidly expanding crisis of “superfluous” peoples in our own times. Subtly exposing what Arendt called “the suffering of more and more groups of people to whom suddenly the rules of the world had ceased to apply,” the film challenges us to think about the contours of “the Banality of Evil in the world today.” Along the way, Ushpiz outlines the major events in Arendt’s life, from her childhood in Konigsberg, her education under the tutelage of Heidegger and Jaspers, and the trauma of the rise of Nazism in Europe, which forever marked her as a refugee — an existential condition and mental awareness that, the Israeli scholar Idith Zertal notes in the film, continued to shape who Arendt was throughout her life.

Arendt, Hannah

About a quarter of the way into the film, Arendt appears in a late interview (1973) with Roger Errera. “To think always means to think in a critical manner […] every thought actually undermines whatever there is of rigid rules, general convictions […] That means there are no dangerous thoughts, because thinking in itself is such a dangerous enterprise.” And what a dangerous enterprise it was for Hannah Arendt, both in her personal life (her youthful love affair with Martin Heidegger) and in her political theory (especially the outrage brought on by the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem). Ushpiz shies away from neither of these emblematic controversies, complicating her film by avoiding any simple explanation of Arendt’s dangerous exploits in thinking.

The film builds back to the Eichmann trial with a clever juxtaposition of Heidegger and Eichmann, and their mutual (in Heidegger’s case, thoughtless? Guileful?) embrace of Nazi ideology. An interview with Jerome Kohn, Arendt’s literary executor and former student, makes the connection. “When the chips are down, [Arendt says], that’s when thinking becomes a phenomenon, it enters the phenomenal world as judgment. ‘No, I will not do that. Heidegger didn’t do it, he didn’t say, ‘No, I will not become Rektor.’” Ushpiz interrupts him. “But this is exactly the banality of evil; suspending thought. No?” Kohn’s response is laughter, an almost hysterical laughter. “It is, in a way, a counterpart, I suppose. Yes.” And now we re-enter the courtroom in Jerusalem. “What were your views on the Nazi theory that the Jews must be banished from Germany,” the judge asks Eichmann. “In 1934-35, I never gave any thought to these matters.” “You said you were never an anti-Semite.” “An anti-Semite? No, I was not.” To this ludicrous remark the prosecutor, Gideon Hausner, cannot help but respond with a cynical smile. The judge continues. “You will agree that it is a paradox: a conscious Nazi who is not a conscious anti-Semite.” “Supposedly,” Eichmann replies, “But it does not have to be so. I was a clerk at ‘Vacuum Oil Company’; I focused on my personal matters, which didn’t include literature, or any general spiritual matters.” Ushpiz then cuts to a photo of Arendt in close-up, as she has actress Allison Darcy speak Arendt’s words: “Of course he wasn’t an anti-Semite; he never hated his victims […] Had Eichmann been a bit less prim, or the police examination less discreet, his so-called lack of prejudice might have shown itself in still another way. It seems that in Vienna […] he had a Jewish mistress, an old flame from Linz.”

Arendt, Hanna 2It’s easy to miss the sarcasm with which the filmmaker intended these lines to be heard; just as easy as it is to misunderstand Arendt’s claim that Eichmann’s anti-Semitism, which she never denied (the first sentence in these lines is a representation of Arendt’s tone, and not anything she wrote in Eichmann), didn’t sufficiently account for how he could knowingly, and without a crisis of conscience, transport millions of Jews to their deaths. He was, she said, safeguarded from the reality of what he was doing by the sheer fact that the Nazi regime had legalized mass murder, or genocide. That such an horrific “attack on human diversity as such” had been made banal, or unquestionably normalized, was the horrible and horrifying fact of the matter that Arendt tried, not altogether successfully, to put into relief in her report on the trial. Ushpiz quotes Arendt there:

The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected to an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else […] And that German society of 80 million people had been shielded against reality and factuality by exactly the same means, the same self-deception, lies, and [stupidity] that had now become ingrained in Eichmann’s mentality.

Beyond Arendt’s portrait of Eichmann, which many still find difficult to accept, the most incendiary section of Eichmann in Jerusalem remains her indictment of Jewish leaders for cooperating with the Nazis. Ushpiz pulls no punches in focusing on this part of the controversy. With Arendt’s voiceover narrating scenes from a Nazi propaganda film showing the actions of Jewish policemen in the Warsaw ghetto, we hear, “The whole truth was that if the Jewish leaders had really been unorganized and leaderless, there would have been chaos and plenty of misery, but the total number of victims would hardly have been between four and a half and six million people.” Commenting on this passage in an interview in the film, Richard Bernstein assesses Arendt’s phrasing as “irresponsible.” “But,” he adds, reading the extensive literature on the Jewish councils that now exists, “the complexities come out. But it was also scandalous.” The debate continues. Was she nuanced enough? Could she have written differently? Been more understanding of the effect, and chosen to phrase her judgment in another way? Did she regret her words? It depends on whom you ask.

Arendt, Hannah 4But it’s the relevance of Arendt’s thinking to our world on which Ushpiz’s movie ends. The exilic perspective in Arendt’s work, Judith Butler contends in interview footage, allows her to find the basis for “a commitment for all refugees […] She universalizes from the position of Jewish exile and the universalization of that perspective leads to an extremely important prioritization of the right of the refugee.” In the final voiceover, sounding over images of today’s refugees and homeless, Arendt’s words serve both as reminder and warning:

Evil […] seems to be closely connected with the invention of a system in which all men are equally superfluous […] The dangers of the corpse factories and holes of oblivion is that today, masses of people are continually rendered superfluous when we continue to think of our world in utility terms rather than in terms of a common world, shared by all […] Totalitarian solutions may well survive the fall of totalitarian regimes in the form of a strong temptation which will come up whenever it seems impossible to alleviate political, social, or economic misery in a manner worthy of man.

I met Ada Ushpiz several years ago at a conference organized by Bard College’s Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. She was then in the early stages of developing material for her film, interviewing, among others, Jerome Kohn, and Leon Botstein, Bard’s President, who was a student of Arendt’s.

I interviewed her via phone from Israel a few weeks before the New York premiere.


KATHLEEN B. JONES: How long have you been working on this project?

ADA USHPIZ: I started in 2011. From the moment the idea came into my head, it’s been five years of work, raising money and doing research. When you and I met, I didn’t even have one dime. I filmed interviews with Jerome Kohn, and some others, for the trailer, to raise money. And this was really the beginning. I then looked for people who were really inspired by her. In the end, I did about thirty interviews. But I didn’t use them all. Because at a certain point I decided I didn’t want to do the movie about these interviews, but focusing more directly on her, on her letters and extracts from her writing. And the moment I decided that, the interviews took second place. I used some to highlight very important points I wanted to stress; to enlighten her letters and extracts, give better access to her writing.

What inspired you to make this documentary?

I think I was intrigued by the idea of “banality of evil”; this is how it all started. We are surrounded by it. And as you grow up and see more the accumulation of it every day; it’s imbued in the world everywhere. In our political life in Israel, for sure. And in my private life. Everywhere; it’s imbued in the world. This was my trigger. I myself am the child of survivors. My parents were from Lithuania. They went through the ghetto. They were moved to some factory that had been built near the ghetto. Because my mother knew German very well, she became a secretary there. And my father, a manager. They were very lucky. And they also were not in any concentration camps. They managed to escape. It was almost the end of the war, 1944, and they went through the Russian front and got to Russia. I was born in Israel long after; they came to Israel in the 50s. They had to get used to the new ways before they had any children. I’ve lived with these memories all the time. I’m sure part of my very, very strong interest in the Holocaust is the result.

You premiered the film in Israel, at the Jerusalem Film Festival?

Yes, and then screenings in Tel Aviv and Haifa. We also had screenings in Munich, in Kassel. And in all these cases, halls of 300-400 were completely full. It was incredible.

What was the audience reaction in Jerusalem?

It was really great, and you know there is a big group in Israel that doesn’t like Hannah Arendt. I got reactions to the film I’ve never gotten for any of my other films. Such as, “I couldn’t sleep, or even talk, for days, because I was so overwhelmed.” People ask me, “Can you send me the script, with the quotations that you chose, because I want to study” I cannot tell you how happy I am with this kind of reaction. This is the kind of thing only a movie can do. When you publish a book, even if it is great, you don’t reach this kind of audience.

But I also showed the film to a very small and closed group of the so-called “religious intelligentsia” in Jerusalem. They were very attentive. But, in the end they said, “It’s a great movie, but you know, Hannah Arendt is a very cold person.” So I said, “Why So?” And we had a whole discussion about her “coldness.” And apparently, for them, the idea that you are demanding, you know, from a moral point of view — you want people to think, you want people to be responsible, to take responsibility — it’s too demanding; too much to demand these kind of things. They thought she was cruel because she’s so demanding. And they say, “Okay, we are all human, we are entitled to our mistakes.” This was a really terrible experience for me. They loved the movie, but sometimes you cannot change the ideas of people who have a certain dogma.

You take up this moral question in the film, when Arendt says you don’t have to do what you are asked to do; there are options. You don’t have to go along.

Exactly, people have freedom of choice.

And people have a hard time accepting that. In fact, in your film, I remember Yehuda Bauer of Hebrew University saying not all of the Judenrat [Jewish Councils] went along; most didn’t cooperate. They simply yielded to Nazi power.”

Yes, but you know, with the Judenrat she was a little bit neglectful. Even in her time, people knew much more about the Judenrat than she took into consideration.

Yes, Roger Errera says something like that in the movie.

Yes, Errera, and, also Richard Bernstein. He says, certain things she shouldn’t have said. First of all, a lot of research came forward after her death, she didn’t know a lot of things. But, on the other hand, there are many things she knew and not only she knew, but in the letters she got — and I read all the letters — you can find many examples and she never related to them. Very interesting examples. People were very cruel toward her as far as “banality of evil” was concerned. But, about the Judenrat, they sometimes had really good arguments. And she didn’t answer them, because I think she said to herself, she couldn’t cope with this cruelty and with what she considered to be, and rightly considered to be, character assassination.  But she avoided issues that were very important.

I don’t remember the name of the ghetto but I remember someone in one of the terrible letters she got gave the example, which is true, because I checked it, and it was known then about this ghetto in Eastern Europe, where the Nazis nominated nine [leaders to the] Judenrat and every one of them committed suicide. Every one. It’s an incredible story. She decided at a certain point to keep silent. And I think it was a mistake because she should have related to these things. It’s understandable that when she wrote the book she related only to testimonies in the trial. But later, she should have responded to these charges in much more detail and with more subtlety. She had the principles right. But it should be elaborated with much more sensitivity.

Do you think this idea comes across in your film, that she should have responded more to these criticisms?

I think I get the complexity. It’s also true that research about the Judenrat had gone to the other extreme in the sense of, “We cannot judge people who were in this situation; we cannot judge, because we could be in the same place and we could have behaved the same way.”

But that’s exactly the point that she makes about thinking.

Exactly. And now, there is a little shifting back to her position. There is a very important line she draws, morally speaking, which is you don’t make lists of people that you send to death even if you want to save many other people. You don’t do it; you don’t decide who is going to die and who is going to live. This is immoral. Period. This is her watershed line. And [Yehuda] Bauer said, yes, but she was wrong, because only a few behaved like this. But the moral point of deciding who is going to die and who is going to live really, this made her crazy, I think. Even Bauer himself wrote a book not long ago, where he really tries, case by case, to get at this complexity: there are people who behaved wrongly and there are also those who behaved much better. You really need to go into the complexity of the whole phenomena and when you do you see that a lot of her critiques are true.

 The net effect of the movie gives a positive image of Hannah Arendt. Did you feel as if you were answering some of her critics with this film?

Yes, I would say. I wanted to answer basic criticisms that were wrong in my eyes. Deborah Lipstadt, for instance. She represents the main criticism that still exists. And this is the basis of the crisis that Arendt creates today in Israel. People still don’t want to give up the idea that anti-Semitism can explain everything. It’s still very strong in Israel today. That’s why I had to tackle it.

What do you want people to take away from your film?

I got one response that represents this for me. Someone said, “I sat watching this movie and I couldn’t stop thinking about our time, and how much everything is a kind of calling for our self-criticism all the time. You see this movie and you feel this need for self-criticism.” And I think I want people to take her ideas and apply them to themselves, to our times. She gives us a moral guide. She is ahead of her time; not only her modern time, but ahead of our postmodern time because of her understanding of the idea of truth. She didn’t accept the idea of relative truth and this is very important for me. And also the essence of her political theory [that you find] in the Origins of Totalitarianism: the idea of a common world as a kind of guideline for our political thinking and political living together. The great idea of a “common world” is like the categorical imperative of Kant in a political translation. Her revival today is because there is a thirst in the world for truth, for justice, for a way of political life of living together. And that’s why she’s so popular. Because the big ideologies of the last century cannot satisfy this thirst any more.


I first saw Vita Activa at the Santa Barbara Film Festival, where Mashey Bernstein introduced Ushpiz’s film. “After I saw this film, I went out and bought a copy of Origins of Totalitarianism and several of her other books. How resonant these works are with today’s issues. This is a very important film.”

Winning “Best Documentary” at the Santa Barbara Festival, it was also lauded in the New York Times and Village Voice, while receiving mixed reviews in a number of other online venues. Having had a capacity-filled New York premiere at the Film Forum, it will open at the Laemmle Monica Film Center in Los Angeles today (April 29). A national release will follow.


Kathleen B. Jones is the author of several books, including Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt