Even decades after her death in 1975, political philosopher Hannah Arendt remains a figure of intense controversy, a situation the woman who said "there are no dangerous thoughts, thinking itself is dangerous" would doubtless approve of.
As revealed in "Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt," a thoughtful, nuanced examination of a complex thinker, Arendt's willingness to challenge certainties and go against the grain lent her thoughts on topics like totalitarianism and the plight of refugees a force and originality that make them surprisingly relevant today.
Directed by Israeli documentarian Ada Ushpiz, who has degrees in philosophy and history as well as filmmaking experience, "Vita Activa" closely examines Arendt's "active life" with the goal of putting us inside her formative experiences, the better to reveal who she was and where her attitudes came from.
There are interviews with old friends and academic experts and extensive use of filmed interviews Arendt herself gave (mainly for German television) as well as the effective reading of excerpts from her essays and letters by actress Alison Darcy.
"Vita Activa" concentrates, not surprisingly, on the celebrated notion of "the banality of evil" that Arendt came up with while covering the Israeli trial of one of the prime movers of the Holocaust, Adolf Eichmann, after coming to view him as not much more than a functionary who only carried out orders.
"She believed him, she saw him as a little man," says Holocaust authority Deborah Lipstadt, and as a result, says Leon Botstein, a friend who is now president of Bard College, "people went berserk. She was accused of being a self-hating, anti-Zionist Jew."
That contention continues today, where newly discovered primary sources seem to indicate that Eichmann was more of a committed Nazi than anyone knew at the time. At the very least, as one Israeli academic provocatively points out, it is worth asking if Arendt unintentionally ended up creating a new cliché in the process of demolishing old ones.
Though the talk is smart and constant here, "Vita Activa" also benefits from the director's sharp eye for effective, often rarely seen newsreel and home-movie footage, including shots of German women all but worshipping Hitler and German army officers dressing up as Jews at a costume party. There is also a clip from "Enchanted Forest," a 1936 German propaganda film celebrating nature and its place in Nazi ideology.
Arendt was born in Germany in 1906 to a family so secular she initially did not know she was Jewish. Even as a small child, however, she loved books with a passion.
At age 18 she studied with Martin Heidegger, a married man and one of the rising stars of European philosophy. They had an affair ("a secret love and a difficult love," says Heidegger's granddaughter), a situation that became more fraught when the philosopher morphed into a major apologist for Nazi ideology.
After the affair ended, Arendt went on to study for her doctorate with Karl Jaspers, a man she came to consider "the greatest educator of all time." In fact, "Vita Activa" begins with a post-World War II exchange of letters between the two in which Jaspers encourages his former student to view the Nazi depredations "in their total banality."
That war and the events leading to it were the central factors in Arendt's life. The 1933 Reichstag fire simultaneously soured her on politics and shocked her into becoming less of an observer and more of an activist.
It also motivated her to leave Germany, first for France and later for the United States, resulting in a lifetime of refugee status that led her to understand from the inside the powerlessness of that political situation.
Though much of "Vita Activa" is of necessity serious, it also finds room for Arendt's personal life, including her marriage to German political activist Heinrich Blucher. "Think of me," she writes touchingly from a Zionist conference in Switzerland, "and don't forget how to kiss."
An ardent Zionist for a time, Arendt came to dislike the idea of a Jewish state, her experience in Germany leading her to feel it would inevitably lead to the marginalization of minorities. It was one of her many insights that speak to contemporary reality in provocative ways.
'Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt'
Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes
Playing: Laemmle's Monica, Santa Monica