Coming to DVD March 21
VITA ACTIVA: THE SPIRIT OF HANNAH ARENDT, A FILM BY ADA USHPIZ
See the trailer and further information at Zeigeist Films
The distribution of the DVD is restricted to the US and Canada region.
AN INTERVIEW WITH ADA USHPIZ
By Melanie Goodfellow
Documentary film-maker Ada Ushpiz tells Screen about charting the life and
fertile mind of a great thinker in her new film
Vita Activa, The Spirit Of Hannah Arendt.
When Ada Ushpiz’s timely documentary Vita Activa, The Spirit Of Hannah Arendt,
exploring the roots and legacy of the legendary philosopher’s thinking, premiered at
Munich International Film Festival earlier this year it played to a packed-out theatre.
“There was not a ticket to be had,” says respected film-maker Ushpiz, whose credits
include Good Garbage, Desert Brides and Detained. Today’s screening at Jerusalem
Film Festival, where the film is playing in the documentary competition, is also sold
“They’re not just coming for the documentary,” declares Ushpiz. “They’re also drawn
by the figure of Hannah Arendt. She remains as popular, if not more popular, than
when she was alive because she was ahead of her time.”
“She is beyond post-modernism. She was a thinking person. She didn’t subscribe to
any set doctrine or school of thought but based her writings on experience and what
was really happening. She had the ability to universalise her personal experience.”
Arendt’s writings, notes the film-maker, have influenced movements as diverse as
Poland’s Solidarity and the pro-democracy Arab Spring. To this day, they also remain
a source of inspiration for the Jewish secular movement. The philosopher’s life-long
defence of the need for a plurality of thought and voices makes Arendt’s work
particularly timely, Ushpiz adds.
In Vita Activa, The Spirit Of Hannah Arendt, she hones in on Arendt’s early writings,
focusing in particular on her most famous work, Eichmann In Jerusalem, based on the
trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961, for his role as an administrator supporting the
deportation and extermination of Jews during the Holocaust.
It was in this work that Arendt crystallised her theory about the “banality of evil”,
stemming from Eichmann’s assertion that he wasn’t guilty because he had simply been
carrying out orders. “I came to the whole thing because I was intrigued by the idea of
the banality of evil,” says Ushpiz. “The more I live in this world, the more I believe it is relevant.”
The documentary traces how Arendt’s thinking and writing grew out of her
experiences growing up in Germany, leaving the country during the rise of the Nazi
party and subsequently living a peripatetic life across Europe.
She touched down in Prague, Geneva and Paris, and was briefly interned by the
Nazis in France before fleeing to the US in 1941. This period in Arendt’s life resulted
in her writings on what it meant to be a refugee.
Her theory that stateless people find themselves “superfluous” to society remains as
relevant now as it did at the time of its formulation in the late 1940s.
Ushpiz’s film also touches on Arendt’s complex relationship with her philosophy
professor Martin Heidegger, who was later discovered to be a Nazi sympathiser.
“Her relationship with Heidegger was complicated,” says the director. “Researchers
have recently come across lectures he gave in 1933 and 1934 while he was the
rector of the University of Freiburg. He speaks in real Nazi language, it’s really
Vita Activa intercuts archival audio and video footage of Adolf Hitler and his military
chief Hermann Göring, 1930s Europe, refugee conveys, the horrors uncovered in
post-war Europe and the Eichmann trial with contemporary interviews with academics
who either knew Arendt or have studied her writings in depth.
Arendt’s words on the subject of being a refugee, for example, run over footage of
people being loaded into lorries, a soup kitchen for Jewish refugees in Paris in the
1930s and images of Hitler addressing his followers.
Where possible, Arendt’s story is told through her own words, either by an actress
reading her writings and letters, or through television interviews. “I did a lot of
interviews but decided in the end it was important for her to tell her own story,
through her own words, either in interview or her writing,” explains Ushpiz. “She
writes very emotionally, which is nice.”
Having spent five years researching, financing and producing the documentary,
Ushpiz says she would like to make a second feature that would examine Arendt’s
work in the final decade of her life, and its impact in the subsequent decades. “For
me,” concludes Ushpiz, “the work of her final years was in many ways even more