Monday, April 4, 2016

Hannah Arendt is back -- and more complete -- in Ada Ushpiz's exemplary doc, VITA ACTIVA

It seems not all that long ago that the fine narrative movie Hannah Arendt opened at Film Forum in New York City. As good as that one was, an even better film on this subject -- VITA ACTIVA: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt -- has its US theatrical premiere this week at the same venue. It's better because it gives us a much closer look at Arendt and her ideas by allowing us to hear her own words and experience her working out those ideas and then coming to terms with them.

If this were all the documentary achieved, it would be plenty good enough. But the Israeli filmmaker, Ada Ushpiz (shown at right), gives us a good deal more.  For me, her movie immediately becomes not simply the best thing I've seen on Ms Arendt but also the best thing I've seen on The Holocaust, what it means to be a Jew in the world (Arendt refused to place her Jewishness ahead of her humanity), and the inevitability of the Israel/Palestine conflict, given the circumstances of the state of Israel's Zionistic birth. When I call the film the "best," this is to give credit to Ms Ushpiz, of course, for how she's put together her marvel of a movie, but mostly to Arendt, who did the difficult inquiry, solid thinking and plain-spoken writing that enables us to see and understand all this.

The manner in which Ushpiz has woven together 20th Century history (Arendt's and the world's) with splendid archival photos, film and personal letters, together with excellent interviews with friends of the late writer and other intellectuals -- both pro and con Arendt -- allows us entry into this woman's life/mind as never before. It's a place to cherish.

The movie also makes us understand how Arendt's now famous "banality of evil" phrase had to do with the action and attitudes of the Nazi murderers rather than that of the horror and pain experienced by Jewish (and other) Holocaust victims. As one one talking head explains it, "Her 'banality of evil' phrase has become a cliché, but that's the risk you take as an influential intellectual."

The film is full of thoughtful as well as thought-provoking ideas -- from her statement that "Nazi crimes explode the limits of the law" to her realization how "de-nationalization" makes citizens so hugely vulnerable. She goes into some detail to show how lying, as the German populace did for the sake of necessity, can appear as something almost sublime. "Our worst crimes have been committed for the sake of necessity and for our mythological future." The visuals Ms Ushpiz chooses to show against her narration are always pointed and riveting.

We get a bit of Arendt's childhood ("vivacious, cheery, a true chatterbox"), as well as her later love life (above). There is also some testimony from Adolf Eichmann that seems different from what we've heard previously. We learn of Arendt's escaping from Germany to France, and then from France to the USA, where diversity seemed to reign -- certainly more so than in the Europe of the day. Some of the most interesting portions of the film comes via a 1964 interview the woman did for German television in which her ideas and thoughtful, measured speech seem like blessings in our current times.

Did you know that Arendt was pro-Zionism for a time?  Nor did I. We learn yet more about collaboration -- by the Jews with the Germans during WWII -- and where this leads. And then we get some of her thoughts on the state of Israel. Little wonder the woman is so hated by those Israelis bent on constant mythmaking of and for their country. As Arendt so pertinently put it: We either pursue plurality or we head toward genocide.

Ms Ushpiz's documentary is long (132 minutes) but so brimming with insight and controversy that you won't want to miss a moment. I left this film feeling that Arendt was as intelligent and inquiring a thinker for her own time as anyone I know -- and, as it turns out, absolutely prescient about our own time to come. (Hello, supporters of Donald Trump!)

Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt -- another gift from Zeitgeist Films -- opens this Wednesday, April 6, in New York City at Film Forum and in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Monica Film Center on April 29. Click here then scroll down to see all currently scheduled playdates, among which I do not find anything here in South Florida. I'll look into this, as South Floridians deserves the chance to view this excellent film, too.

No comments: