Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt

by Abigail Ramos – Syracuse University

On November 13th, Arendt, a political theorist famous for coining the description of the “banality of evil,” was celebrated for her life at the Cinema Odeon, as her documentary Vita Activa, was shown to the curious audience in attendance. For two hours, the audience was immersed in Arendt’s personal life as the film focused on letters to and from her, getting to know her relationships and failed marriages, and delving into the influences that eventually led to her theories on the banality of evil at the time of the Holocaust and Adolf Eichmann’s trial.

The documentary addresses the general public’s reservations with Arendt, on how her theories downplay the horrific events of the Holocaust because the people who were responsible weren’t actually responsible, but just simply taking orders, and so therefore, the people involved in these horrific acts were, at the core of it all, innocent. This complex theory, as Arendt states in her books time and time again, contributes to the intricate nature of the human condition, that if people just take orders, they assume no responsibility, and therefore, should not be punished for their crimes, no matter how heinous. It is an idea that caused much uproar, up to the point where people even started labeling Arendt an anti-Semite and a white supremacist. This documentary, directed by Ada Ushpiz, sought to remedy Arendt’s reputation, as the film stressed Arendt’s focus on the human condition, and not just the Nazi condition, or the Jewish condition. Arendt’s focus was on human beings as a whole, as she viewed the Holocaust as a genocide towards the entire human population, and not just the Jews, even though they were the ones that were affected.

According to the filmmakers, Arendt took interest in this banality of evil, saying that forms of government such as totalitarianism were dangerous because they offered an ideology which promised stability in an otherwise chaotic, random world. She realized that the reason Germans took to Nazism so quickly was because they looked for a single, solid thing to put the blame on for the nation’s failures at the time. Everyone was desperate for a cure, so when one cast blame, others simply joined in this evil, thus creating the pathology of finding a scapegoat. This was the predictability of evil, Arendt says, as well as the predictability of human nature. Did it create controversy? Yes. But was she wrong?

 “The sad truth,” as Hannah Arendt says, “is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

As an American student studying abroad in Europe, watching this documentary was very chilling. The Holocaust is already a horrible event to learn about, but to be only a few countries away, rather than thousands and thousands of miles away, makes the footage taken from the Holocaust even more haunting and terrible to watch. However, watching the film was such an educational experience because it explored the ideas and mentality of Hannah Arendt, as well as the complexities of her theories and the backlash that she got from it. The film, although chilling to the core, was a comprehensive exploration of Arendt’s theories on the banality of evil and the human condition.

 

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