One of the most challenging and intellectually rigorous films to play at this year’s Santa Barbara International Film Festival was Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt. Ada Ushpiz’s documentary was presented as part of the KOLNOA sidebar, “a selection of feature films and documentaries that examine Israel from a variety of diverse historical, cultural and political perspectives.” Hannah Arendt, whose work has elicited growing interest in Israel in recent years, is presented as a flawed figure, an intellectual who vociferously defended ideas in public that she later disavowed in private. Though some of her complex views on ideology, totalitarianism, and Jewish refugees left stateless by the Holocaust have been challenged since her death, they continue to resonate in today’s contentious geopolitical climate.
Given the ongoing refugee crisis in the Middle East, it’s perhaps natural that Arendt’s thoughts on European refugees rendered stateless by the outcome of WWI and their lack of rights receive special focus. Throughout, the filmmakers present a critical, largely evenhanded take of Arendt’s accomplishments and failures. She’s taken to task by commentators for her misjudgment of Adolf Eichmann’s character, her apologia for Martin Heidegger’s Nazi affiliation, and her vitriolic, factually inaccurate portrayal of the Judenrat (Jewish councils that were established by the Nazis) and its leaders, which Arendt herself later repudiated. The documentary even implies that her most famous concept, the “banality of evil,” was appropriated from her mentor, Karl Jaspers, who coined the phrase in a letter to her.
Heidegger, her teacher and one-time lover, comes off as a sexist, selfish, vain, and pompous little man, his love letters to Arendt full of embarrassing romantic clichés. One of the most famous philosophers of the 20th century, Heidegger is shown calling for the “extermination of the enemy” before the Nazis’s rise to power. Such damning evidence of his inherent anti-Semitism is, in turn, used against Arendt for her promotion of the Heidegger myth, which claimed that he was an innocuous fellow traveler of the Nazis duped by Hitler’s lies. Her failure to take Heidegger into account for his crimes is presented as one of her great moral failures.
And though she was an ardent Zionist in the 1930s and early ’40s, Arendt grew disillusioned with Israel and labeled the Eichmann case a “show trial” staged by the Israeli government. The film’s talking heads imply that this attitude resulted from her preconceived notions about Israel that she brought with her to Jerusalem when sent there to cover the trial for the New Yorker. While praising the perspicacity of many of her insights and their lasting relevance, the documentary also reveals a philosopher whose prejudices often led her to fail to accurately discern the world right before her eyes.
Another documentary that examines the ongoing legacy of WWI is Leanne Pooley’s 25 April, which focuses on the Battle of Gallipoli, a defining moment in the history of both Australia and New Zealand. The countries’ combined forces, ANZAC, suffered heavy losses during that campaign, which led to increased national consciousness in those (at the time) British colonies, eventually leading to their independence from the empire. The proceedings in the film are all fairly straightforward and patriotic, focusing on the brave exploits of the participants without delving too deeply into the political nuances and ramifications of the experience.
The filmmakers capture the participants’ experience of the war as it shifts from being a kind of game or sport to an increasing nightmarish vision of hell on Earth, a well-trod narrative given a new twist here through the film’s striking digital animation. From the surreal nature of a brief ceasefire between the Turks and the Allies to collect their dead, to the mutual respect that developed between the two sides amid unspeakable carnage, the filmmakers take advantage of the uniquely abstract possibilities offered by their medium to capture the indefinable uncanniness of war. Employing deep reds and inky blacks to depict the demonic nature of such violence, the animation captures the participants’ psychological trauma in a way that’s often foreclosed to traditional cinema. Like Waltz with Bashir, the film combines documental sources with dreamlike recreations of key battles to put the viewer inside the heads of those who experienced these events.
Closer to our own time, Vinyl Generation chronicles the generation that came of age during Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution, which signaled the end of communist totalitarianism in Eastern Europe. Director Keith Jones interviewed men and women who used punk music and Western culture to create a dissident counterculture in the years preceding the revolution. While Jones attempts to paint these people as revolutionary icons, they themselves admit that they faced little actual persecution from the government, on its last legs by then and mostly content to monitor rather than punish dissidents.
Participants recount that, when buying and selling illegal Western records in parks or going to prohibited underground music shows, often as many as half of the people there were undercover cops. Anyone detained was usually released a few days later. Nostalgic for the revolution they claim to have precipitated, these former punks are now stable, successful, bourgeois professors, artists, and music-industry insiders. In the end, their half-hearted and sometimes incoherent complaints about the oppressions of capitalist democracy are undermined by their unparalleled freedom in comparison to their lives under communism. While bemoaning the supposed repression of liberalism, they simultaneously stage support rallies for Pussy Riot, imprisoned as part of Russia’s anti-liberal turn.
Jones has made other documentary films about punk music and seems to have been drawn to these particular people because of their connection to the genre, but he fails to make a compelling argument delineating their special significance in any of these events. They only seemed to be tangentially involved in the occurrences that led to the Velvet Revolution and its aftermath. This might account for the documentary’s low energy and amorphous, loose storytelling, a result both of unfocused direction and Jones’s strained efforts to give punk music more credit than it deserves in the story of Czechoslovakia’s liberal revolution.
The Santa Barbara International Film Festival runs from February 3—13.