Review: ‘Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt’

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Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt
(Canada/Israel, 127 min.)
Written and directed by Ada Ushpiz


Hannah Arendt’s controversial theory of “the Banality of Evil,” published in her 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem, remains relevant as new generations of citizens choose to either think critically about the world or become complacent cogs in the corporate machine. Her theory intellectualises the impassive behaviour of Nazi Adolf Eichmann during his trial for crimes committed during the Holocaust and its implications endure. Arendt’s writing and philosophy receives a thorough probing in Ada Ushpiz’s impressively researched and comprehensively objective feature documentary Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt. This doc immerses the viewer in the world of the philosopher and all her complexities. It’s anything but banal.

Ushpiz, working with Canuck producer Ina Fichman (The Wanted 18), takes a relatively conventional approach to the late Arendt’s biography and philosophy by pairing new interviews with expansive archival footage. The sobriety of the doc’s form allows the filmmakers to probe and debate the subject while remaining respectful of the atrocities behind the Nazis’ banally evil deeds. The even-handedness of Ushpiz’s methodology enables Vita Activa to explain Arendt’s influential philosophy in accessible terms without dumbing it down; moreover, the doc stresses the complex and sensitive cultural climate from which Arendt’s writing emerged.

Vita Activa inevitably detours through Arendt’s long and complicated relationship with Martin Heidegger. Instead of injecting a thrill of romance into the story, Ushpiz focuses on Arendt’s growing frustration with Heidegger’s complacency with the Nazis during his university tenure. Arendt’s sense of betrayal, as well her enduring affection for the man, adds to the film’s interrogation of the individual’s willful blindness or willingness to see beyond evil in hopes of finding the best aspects of humanity.

The film mostly centres on the concept of the “banality of evil” as a variety of intellectuals from around the world, along with some of Arendt’s aids and peers, illuminate her mindset and character. The interviews speak to a brilliant mind and connect Arendt’s philosophy with contemporary attitudes, politics, and currents. Her writing itself resonates in a contemporary culture, though, so the film doesn’t necessarily need the interviews to expand upon Arendt’s work, although they illustrate her character and psyche by fleshing out her idiosyncrasies and contradictions.

Vita Activa does present Arendt’s writing with a mix of intertitles and narration. Both presentations of the work allow Arendt’s voice to carry the film. The philosopher appears in ample archival interviews and these images might be the best snippets of Vita Activa as they display Arendt’s shrewd mind, frankness, and complexity. Much of this footage centres on the Eichmann trial as Arendt discusses the proceedings and elaborates upon her work through her observations on the Nazi’s chilly character.

The film provides interviews with Arendt from her publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem through to her death in 1975 and the impartial cutting of the film captures the weight of her life’s work through the visible changes in her comportment and demeanour. The burden of carrying such a responsibility of theorizing and intellectualising one of the darkest chapters in contemporary history clearly took its toll. While Arendt stands behind her work, the film raises considerable objections she encountered, through both the archival collage and the assembly of interviewees. By challenging Arendt’s work, her arguments hold stronger and the queries ultimately add to her belief in pluralism whereby assorted people of various minds may live together. This emphasis on diversity is central to the film’s contemporary resonance.

Vita Activa also complements Margarethe Von Trotta’s terrific 2013 drama Hannah Arendt, which stars Barbara Sukowa (who looks nothing like the Arendt one sees in the doc) in a spectacular performance as the writer. While Vita Activa doesn’t find the same thrill of internalising the intellectual process that Hannah Arendt does—recall those lengthy scenes of Sukowa smoking in deep thought—it comprehensively shares the outcome of this academic brainstorming. The spirit of her academic rigour is palpable in the film’s own breadth of research and its immersion into the archives. Vita Activa offers a thorough and insightful portrait of one of the 20th century’s shrewdest thinkers and theorists. It’s an engrossing study for intellectuals familiar with Arendt’s work, as well as an informative survey for the uninitiated.

Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt screens in Toronto at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema from Friday, June 10 to Thursday, June 17.


Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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