Documentary explores ‘spirit’ of Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt

When German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt covered the Adolf Eichmann trial for the New Yorker in 1961, she quickly became a pariah in the Jewish community. 

Her writings suggested that a major perpetrator of Nazi crimes was an ordinary man whose superficiality made him more likely to obey orders. That concept she pioneered, of “the banality of evil,” has endured until today.

However, for many decades, Arendt was considered persona non grata for study at Israeli universities. None of her works, including Eichmann in Jerusalem, were translated into Hebrew until 1999.

While Arendt’s ideas may still be difficult for many to accept, her reputation as a political theorist and thinker keeps growing. A new documentary, Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt, explores how her 20th-century insights are still relevant in 2016.

“She treated so many issues that are relevant today in her writing,” says Ina Fichman, the film’s Montreal-based producer. “I have a 21-year-old son, and his friends were studying political science or philosophy. They’re all reading her, and they’re all finding meaning in what she’s writing about.”

Vita Activa began screening at Toronto’s Bloor Hot Docs Cinema on June 10, and will remain until June 17. Fichman says the film will also play at Montreal’s Cinéma du Parc later this year.

In addition to the Eichmann trial and the controversy that followed, the documentary looks at Arendt’s still-topical 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism. Meanwhile, much of the film looks at her experience as a refugee in Europe after World War I. Her insights on this subject remain vital today.

“The alienation and the sense of not feeling like you’re belonging… this is what she lived,” Fichman says. “Refugees being seen as outsiders and not being included in society [today], that was her story.”

Despite the criticism she received from covering the Eichmann trial, the film shows how the horrors of Nazism and the Holocaust informed her life and work.

The Israeli-Canadian co-production works as a primer on the influential thinker, but doesn’t simplify Arendt’s complex writing and contrarian opinions. Director Ada Ushpiz has a doctorate in philosophy and resists dumbing down Arendt’s insights.


“I think that’s the major achievement of the film,” Fichman says of the documentary’s depth. “Her thoughts are complex and she’s complex. You can’t put [Arendt] in a box.”

Vita Activa also contains exclusive archive footage of Arendt’s early life in Germany, as well as intimate correspondence between the political theorist and various men in her life. One of those relationships was with Martin Heidegger, her professor and friend who later collaborated with the Nazis.

Arendt still remains a polarizing figure in some Israeli circles. Fichman estimates that her work wasn’t taught at Israeli universities until about five years ago. Regardless, the film had a successful run in Israeli cinema and on television.

The film’s premiere at the Bloor could be English Canada’s only access to the film until it hits DVD or Video On Demand services. While Vita Activa will play on television in Quebec, the film hasn’t been sold in English Canada.

“There are very few homes for these kinds of international documentaries on Canadian television,” Fichman tells The CJN. “It’s unfortunate, because I think broadcasters in Canada have underestimated the intelligence and the curiosity of their market. I think we should give our audiences more credit.”

Ushpiz is even interested in making a sequel that examines more of Arendt’s life, although Fichman says she doesn’t know if she will produce it. The Montreal producer is about to begin working on a film about the Oslo accords. Like Vita Activa, this newest project is a collaboration between Canada and Israel.

“I think the Israeli film community is very sophisticated and knowledgeable, and one of the best in the world,” Fichman says. “It’s impressive, the level of craftsmanship and the intellectual rigour with which my Israeli [creative] partners approach their films.”