“Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt” is a documentary about the alternately celebrated and reviled German-born philosopher who gave us the catchphrase “the banality of evil.” She was referring to Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, chief enabler of the Holocaust, whose 1961 trial she wrote up in a series of New Yorker magazine articles that became the book “Eichmann in Jerusalem.” The film, directed by Ada Ushpiz, mostly focuses on Arendt’s take on the trial and its aftermath, and it features extensive footage of her, mostly from a 1964 German TV interview.
Ushpiz is careful to include naysayers along with supporters of Arendt, but the core of her contention – that Eichmann was essentially a cog in a totalitarian regime and therefore, in a sense, ghoulishly insignificant – is still a flashpoint for controversy. I have always found Arendt’s attempts to intellectualize horror insufficiently empathetic, and this film does nothing to alter my view, best expressed by Cynthia Ozick in her essay “Love and Levity at Auschwitz,” where she writes: “Arendt, so proudly sealed in intellect that nothing could penetrate the armor of her synthesis, ended less in condemnation than mitigation – her neutered Eichmann is a weak-kneed pharaoh, scarcely worth all those plagues. History as comedy has a parallel effect: it trivializes the unconscionable. The blood the clown spills is always ketchup.” Grade: B (Unrated.)