Review: Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt

It reduces its historical moment to a series of vignettes and voiceovers, all evincing curiously tone-deaf sentimentality.

Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt
Photo: Zeitgeist Films

Almost identical in form, theme, and flaws to The Decent One, Ada Ushpiz’s Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt reduces its historical moment—specifically, Arendt’s controversial writings about the Holocaust and love affair with philosopher Martin Heidegger—to a series of vignettes and voiceovers, with each evincing a curiously tone-deaf sentimentality. Much of the film goes to extensive lengths to recite passages of Arendt’s prose, but does little to actually contextualize it. Ushpin illustrates events with numerous reels of archival footage, some accompanied by actress Allison Darcy’s narration, which is meant to stand in for Arendt’s disembodied voice. But the effect is neither illuminating nor poetic, only banalizing and repetitive. By taking passages out of context and offering them as if they were short poems, Ushpiz neglects to convincingly historicize Arendt’s critical sensibilities.

Ushpiz directs the documentary into a corner immediately by treating Arendt as not only a paragon of intellectual thought, but an eroticized figure. In fact, through the use of a posed, sensual photograph of Arendt that’s accompanied by a saccharine, strings-heavy score, Ushpiz seems one step away from adding “sex goddess” to Arendt’s bullet-pointed list of accomplishments. Later, when presenting Arendt’s affair with Heidegger, her professor and mentor at the time, Vita Activa treats their exchange of letters, read with amorous longing in voiceover by Darcy and Brett Donahue as Heidegger, as if it were erogenous evidence of Arendt’s rollicking passions.

At least Ushpiz never gestures toward any greater significance for these formal choices, except to predicate Arendt’s eventual ambivalence for Heidegger’s political proclivities, but even that trajectory is cheapened by the film’s CliffsNotes approach to romantic tragedy and biographical detail. Even when the film attempts to assert its intellectual heft, it’s a purely sophomoric flex of text awareness, with spoken lines like “When all are considered guilty, no one can be judged” foreclosing Ushpiz’s sense of what’s significant about such a concept. Ushpiz brings in several talking head to try and lend the prose some context, but the effect is generally either gossipy or hagiographic.

Arendt’s greatest contribution to philosophies of trauma and state power is her concept of “the banality of evil,” which explains that the concentration camps were not conceived by naturally evil men, but that these acts of genocide were the product of a “prosaic triviality,” one that obscures an individual’s responsibility for committing an act of murder. Vanessa Lapa’s 2014 documentary The Decent One takes that concept as its guiding theoretical premise and likewise sensationalizes a series of letters exchanged between Nazi officer Heinrich Himmler and his wife as if it were an epistolary novel. Compare these aesthetic choices with those of Harun Farocki’s 2007 film Respite, which daringly refuses sound, words, or music of any sort in its entirety, remaining completely silent over archival footage from Holocaust sites and use of intertitles, and both The Decent One and Vita Activa unfold as middlebrow photoplays of love in the time of Holocaust.

 Director: Ada Ushpiz  Distributor: Zeitgeist Films  Running Time: 125 min  Rating: NR  Year: 2016

Clayton Dillard

Clayton Dillard is a lecturer in cinema at San Francisco State University.

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