A PHONE RINGS in Hannah Arendt’s home study. Her husband, the poet and philosopher Heinrich Blücher, answers. It’s William Shawn, Arendt’s editor at The New Yorker. Arendt signals that she is not home — her report on the Eichmann trial is overdue — and occupies herself at the typewriter. Blücher moves to the hallway where Arendt unexpectedly emerges to playfully chastise him for not kissing her goodbye. Blücher avers: “Never disturb a great philosopher when they are thinking.” Arendt, embracing him, replies, “but they cannot think without kisses.”
This is a scene from Hannah Arendt, the 2012 biopic from director Margarethe von Trotta and distributed by Zeitgeist Films about the political thinker’s personal life after the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem, her notoriously misunderstood book about the trial of Adolf Eichmann. We watch as Arendt weathers the hostility over her phrase the “banality of evil,” which seemingly made Eichmann’s crimes unexceptional and implicated Jewish council leaders in the extermination of millions of Jews. The American novelist Mary McCarthy features prominently as Arendt’s witty and faithful friend, while Blücher sustains her with kisses and wise counsel. In one odd moment, Arendt appears to draw courage for her own public ostracism by reflecting on a prior conversation with Martin Heidegger about his Nazism. (Heidegger joined the Nazi party in 1933 and stayed a member until it was dismantled in 1945. The nature of his involvement with and the degree of his belief in the Nazi program remains a subject of controversy.)
Hannah Arendt makes academic life alluring, almost sexy. Richard Brody, in his review for The New Yorker, calls the film “soft-core philosophical porn.” Von Trotta, he says, “titillates the craving for the so-called intellectual life while actually offering little intellectual substance.” Indeed, Arendt’s immaculately stylized Riverside Drive apartment is arguably the star of the film, even though no academic today, much less a refugee such as Arendt, could even dream of such an address. But beyond the film’s window-dressed intellectualism is a more important ethical question about how the life of a philosopher, particularly a female philosopher, should be portrayed. In presenting Arendt as a philosopher who cannot think without kisses does von Trotta suggest that Hannah Arendt — the theorist and champion of active, public, political life — can only be viewed meaningfully in her private habitat? Are the thoughts of the female philosopher only as good as the kisses that interrupt and sustain them?
The appearance, less than four years later, of Ada Ushpiz’s documentary Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt (2016) — also distributed by Zeitgeist Films — would seem to suggest a critical myopia in von Trotta’s treatment of Arendt. Whereas von Trotta dramatizes the turmoil of one intense period in Arendt’s personal life, Ushpiz seeks to convey the complexity and idiosyncrasy of her thinking in general. Using classic documentary techniques like voice-over, archival footage, and interviews with academics, Ushpiz aims for an extensive view of Arendt’s life and work. Hence the title Vita Activa, a phrase taken from Arendt’s work to denote the fundamental categories — labor, work, action — of an active life. Ushpiz wants to show that Arendt had more to say on the Holocaust than what she wrote about Eichmann. She draws attention, for example, to Arendt's searing critique of human rights in light of the millions of “superfluous” refugees that emerged after the war and her objection, later in her life, to the Zionist project in Israel.
And yet Ushpiz cannot resist narrating the personal letters between Arendt and Heidegger and Arendt and Blücher. There are plenty of kisses in this documentary (“I kiss your mouth and nose, each,” Arendt signs off a letter to her beloved Heinrich. “Don’t forget how to kiss,” she chides him in another). And there is decidedly more of Heidegger, too. Ushpiz emphasizes letters in which Heidegger entreats a young Arendt to visit him in the evening at his home. It is unclear whether these facts about Arendt’s private and romantic life illuminate anything important for her thinking or if they are just enticing bits of biography.
Part of the problem with making a film about Arendt, or any philosopher, is that philosophers are not supposed to have lives. Jacques Derrida drolly sums up the classic paradigm for the philosopher’s biography in Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s 2002 documentary film about him. “As you know,” he says,
traditional philosophy excludes biography, considers biography as something external to philosophy. You remember Heidegger’s statement about Aristotle? Heidegger once was asked, “What was the life of Aristotle?” […] Well the answer is very simple, “Aristotle was a philosopher”, and the answer holds in one sentence: “He was born, he thought, and he died.” And all the rest is pure anecdote.
Derrida is the uncooperative subject of his own biopic, continually calling attention to the camera as an archiving mechanism. When an interviewer pushes him on his refusal to give intimate details about how he met his wife, Derrida says, “If the story of one’s life, the details, the anecdotes, the daily events, can only be inadequately told, then what remains essential […] to know is what a person thinks and writes philosophically.” So while Dick and Ziering’s film tantalizes us with the image of Derrida buttering his toast or anecdotes about him writing in his bathrobe, its real point is to chastise our compulsive attraction to such biographical moments and remind us that we cannot know his life or any life completely.
To some extent philosophy’s moratorium on biography is self-serving, especially for those with something to hide. The Nazism of Paul de Man and Heidegger has been defended and downplayed with arguments about the necessary exclusion of biography from philosophical understanding. Even so, most films about male philosophers do not dwell on their private relationships. Documentaries about Heidegger, for instance, avoid his relationship to Arendt and other women (One exception is Jeffrey van Davis’s obscure documentary Only A God Will Save Us , which touches on his “manipulative” streak.) And while Astra Taylor’s film Zizek! playfully domesticates the “rock star philosopher” by having him pontificate from a hotel bed or show off his sock collection in the kitchen, Taylor’s ambition is to change the spectator’s relationship to philosophy, not chinwag about his marriages. (One of Žižek’s ex-wives is the philosopher Renata Salecl, and another is the daughter of Argentine psychoanalysts who was unfairly described as an “underwear model” when pictures of their wedding emerged on the internet.)
We could easily decry the double standard. If Arendt is erased from Heidegger’s life, he is omnipresent in representations of hers. In Vita Activa, Heidegger’s granddaughter Gertrud Heidegger suggests that Heidegger took “spiritual comfort” in many young academic women, Arendt among them. These women gave him “wings for his work,” she says. But a film about Arendt places this “spiritual association” at the heart of her life.
Perhaps the bigger problem, then, for making a film about Arendt is that there is little cinematic paradigm for the female thinker as a narrative subject. There are maybe five films that offer precedent. But if we subjected them to a new Bechdel test, asking, “does the film represent the female philosopher as someone whose thinking is prioritized above her love life?” only three would pass: Philosophical Encounters of the Third Kind (2007) a documentary on Judith Butler; An Encounter with Simone Weil (2010); and Edith Stein: The Seventh Chamber (1996). Two other features are disqualified because they are narrated from the perspective of the lady philosopher’s lover: Violette (2013), a film about a love affair between Simone de Beauvoir and her protégé Violette Leduc, and Agora (2009), the story of a slave who pursues his freedom “while falling in love with his mistress, the famous philosophy and mathematics professor Hypatia of Alexandria.”
For all this, however, Arendt would have agreed with Heidegger and Derrida about the value of personal facts and biography. In The Human Condition, she argued that the modern private sphere, the zone of intimacy and domesticity, is not truly political because it is not part of a common world. Arendt was interested in political relationships, those of civic friendship and solidarity, rather than the “dark shelter” of the private realm. In her own experimental biography on the 19th-century salon host Rahel Varnhagen, she warned about Romantic introspection. The danger of dwelling on the interior life is that “intimacies are made public, and public matters can be experienced and expressed only in the realm of the intimate — ultimately, in gossip.”
Von Trotta and Ushpiz do not respect Arendt’s distinction between private and public matters. In their own ways, and perhaps unintentionally, they offer a cinematic critique of this separation. In an interview with The Believer, von Trotta invoked Arendt’s famous phrase “thinking without a banister” as a summary for her film. She wanted to show the fiercely independent side to Arendt’s thinking. Yet her film actually suggests the opposite. With its emphasis on Arendt’s lovers, friends, colleagues, editors, students, and assistants during the years that she was writing on the Eichmann trial, the film zooms in on precisely the banisters that support and enable her thinking. Indeed, there are more scenes of conversation, teaching, and counsel than of solitary thinking, though the film ends beautifully with Arendt supine on a chaise lounge, smoking with her eyes closed. McCarthy, with whom Arendt carried on a lifelong correspondence, comes across as an especially intimate and warm intellectual companion.
Von Trotta’s film shows how the private world, with its ties of love and friendship, encourages a life of public thinking and speaking. Ushpiz, for her part, is more concerned with representing and respecting her thinking in general. Many films have attempted to represent thinking on film. Richard Linklater’s Waking Life (2001), for example, with its rotoscope animation of a decidedly clouded and infantile existentialism, and Astra Taylor’s film Examined Life (2008), which puts a variety of philosophers into pragmatic conversation about their ideas. Vita Activa’s attempt to represent thinking is to match Arendt’s writing on totalitarianism and rightlessness with historical footage, some of it very disturbing. The footage of German soldiers building the camps is especially unnerving when coupled with a narration from Eichmann in Jerusalem about evil as a failure to think. But breadth and depth are too much to handle at the same time. The film feels long and it’s difficult, even for an observant reader of Arendt’s work, to keep track of the sheer volume of information from Arendt’s oeuvre.
One moment in Ushpiz’s film that I think is truly revolutionary for the status quo of philosophical documentary occurs during an interview with Arendt’s former assistant about Heidegger’s ties to the Nazi party. The filmmaker’s voice intrudes, the only time this happens in the film, to ask whether Heidegger, like Eichmann, failed to think what he was doing. The assistant laughs nervously in response to this unexpected question. It is this moment when the separation between Arendt’s private biography and her public thinking dissolves. Arendt did not openly engage with Heidegger’s Nazism, but Ushpiz’s film creates the conditions where an assessment of his “failure to think” in the terms she outlines for Eichmann is also unavoidable. Heidegger, in this moment, is less a subject in her biography, a lover or former teacher, than a specimen subjected to her thinking.
Perhaps the biggest flaw of both of these films arises from what their directors think of as their greatest strengths. Von Trotta wants to depict Arendt as an independent thinker, yet that independence is made parallel in her film to Heidegger’s idea of “thinking as a lonely business.” Ushpiz, in her quest to show Arendt’s thought in its variance, dilutes the comprehension necessary to make sense of the film’s intellectual stakes. But for all their trespass into the private and romantic life of Hannah Arendt, these films do offer some critical alternatives for philosophical documentary. What looks like domestic downgrade in von Trotta’s film is a myth-busting exploration of the social networks that support the labor of thinking. And what is at times an overly penetrating narration of Arendt’s life and writing is also a valuable attempt to register the personal culpabilities of thinking and of failing to think.
Stephanie DeGooyer is completing a book called The Sorrows of Anybody: The Aesthetics of Democracy in the Long Eighteenth Century, which accounts for the rise of the democratic proposition that anybody can be a subject of art in the anti-realist properties of the 18th-century sentimental novel. She is also co-author of The Right to Have Rights with Werner Hamacher, Alastair Hunt, and Samuel Moyn (forthcoming from Verso Books in fall 2016).