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Why Hannah Arendt Matters in 2016

The controversial German philosopher is enjoying renewed pop culture significance. We talked with director Ada Ushpiz to find out why.
In the 1960s, Hannah Arendt was a pariah; today, she’s a pop-cultural icon.

In the 1960s, Hannah Arendt was a pariah; today, she’s a pop-cultural icon.

Hannah Arendt created the equivalent of a Twitter war in 1962 when she portrayed Nazi colonel and Holocaust organizer Adolf Eichmann as an unthinking bureaucrat in a series of articles for TheNew Yorker. Old-guard Jewish intellectuals preferred to think of Eichmann as a singularly evil man, and to ignore that Jewish leaders may have been complicit in the genocide. They found Arendt’s take as a fellow Jew and Holocaust survivor unfeeling, even self-hating. Irate readers sent the German-Jewish philosopher hate mail; former friends iced her out; even her colleagues at the progressive New School, where she taught philosophy, asked her to drop her classes.

Nearly 50 years later, at a moment when words like “doxx” and “troll” have entered the cultural vernacular, books and movies are rehabilitating Arendt’s image for a new generation, and turning her into an unlikely pop cultural icon. If you didn’t catch the Icon book about her resilience in the face of harassment post-Eichmann in Jerusalem, or Daniel Maier-Katkin’s re-visitation of her controversial affair with Martin Heidegger, perhaps you saw the biopic from German feminist director Margarethe von Trotta in 2012. Von Trotta rendered Arendt as an unsung feminist hero, a lionization that irked some critics—in The New Yorker, Richard Brody called the movie a “hagiography” and a “tone-deaf attempt to depict quotidian life in a grand sentimental mode”—and indicated the degree to which feelings have shifted regarding Arendt. Writers ask now whether Eichmann was on trial, or Arendt, observing that present-day attacks on Arendt’s personal life have “taken a desperate turn.”

The latest of these re-visitations is the documentary Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt, which premieres in Los Angeles today. Though it belongs to the body of contemporary works that are sympathetic to Arendt’s ideas, Israeli filmmaker Ada Ushpiz is less interested in making Arendt out to be a feminist hero than in exploring how she got her ideas: As Ushpiz writes in an early title card, Arendt, who died in 1975, never experienced “the lingering relevance of her ideas.”

While one can imagine that Arendt, author of The Origins of Totalitarianism, would have quite a bit to say about Donald Trump 2016 and Guantánamo Bay, the documentary presents Arendt’s ideas in historical context. Layering excerpts from Arendt’s writings and interviews with her friends and critics over documentary footage from Nazi Germany, Vita Activa evinces a strong sense of restraint: If viewers find some similarities between the images of fervent Nazi nationalism and the postures we see at Trump rallies, that’s their prerogative. Ushpiz, whose guiding hand can be glimpsed only in editing, seems to be challenging her audience to do a bit of one of Arendt’s favorite activities: critical, individual thinking.

Still, we wondered: What contemporary events inspired Ushpiz to make her film in the first place? And what surprised her during her research and production process? In an interview with Pacific Standard, the Israeli director talked to us about how Arendt’s most famous and misunderstood concept, “the banality of evil,” might be operating in the world today, and why Arendt’s body of work has inspired Ushpiz to support the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We started the interview over the telephone an hour before Usphiz’s flight from the United States to Amsterdam and finished it over email.*

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How did this movie get started for you?

My intrigue came from the idea of the banality of evil. This idea penetrates all levels of our lives—our private life, social life, political life—to such a degree that this, for me, was the element that was extra salient. The movie was really an attempt to understand what she meant by that, “the banality of evil.” The concept itself is so [entrenched in our culture] that I wanted to unload it somehow.

How do you personally see her “banality of evil” thesis playing out in the world today?

The epitome of Arendt’s idea of banality of evil [is] the state of thoughtlessness—where one’s personal world is rinsed with cliches, norms, ideologies, and national ethos, and when words are no longer channels of thinking, but are instead sound boxes for consensual background noise. It means that the individual becomes indifferent enough to himself as human being and to his fellow people [that he can] take part in any wickedness that functionality, or ideologies of his group of interests or belonging can produce.

We see that all around us—for instance, in genocides on different scales in Rwanda, Bosnia, Iraq, and in Syria, done by people who are locked in ideologies and racism, which become their legitimate, normal, and victorious world. They will usually be demonized by other [people], also penetrated by counter-racism and ideologies, that wishes as well to distance itself from any thinking, understanding, and responsibility for the world we create together. [But] demonization is evil itself: By demonization one can also easily and logically justify expulsion, building walls, transfer, nullifying masses of people, libel them, etc. Incapability to think from the point of view of the other nourishes the constant withdrawal into yourself and sustains egoistic processes in private life and in economic and social systems—one can see [that], among other examples, in the recent revival of neo-right trends in America and Europe.

I personally see too much of it in Israel today, where national ethos and a long history of victimization provides all the justifications and “necessities” to go on with a corrupted occupation and yet to feel extremely moral and just, to find satisfaction in the claim that we don’t have a partner for peace—which I personally believe to be untrue — and disregard our human responsibility to do everything in our power, ceaselessly and devotedly, to change our reality by respecting also the rights of Palestinians to a state of themselves alongside Israel. Instead we build more settlements, and an enhanced occupation, to make sure that our first assumption that we don’t have a partner will prove to be true.

The film particularly focuses on Arendt’s writings on totalitarian regimes, and the historical events that lead to them. Did you have any modern governments in mind when you took this approach?

Exploring the totalitarian mode so deeply of existing gave [Arendt] an historical and future perspective on human society. Demonization still provides, nowadays, justifications to new bizarre ideas about weak minorities, refugees, and other weak links of society. Totalitarianism was an unprecedented phenomenon, according to Arendt, but mixed ideologies, propaganda, making people superfluous, avoiding the recognition of victims, xenophobia, racism, bureaucratic evil, [all of] which fed totalitarianism, are still present and flourish also today, [even] in democratic societies.

Several of your interview subjects say that, to understand Arendt, you have to understand her identity as a refugee. The European Union is currently experiencing what is being called “the worst refugee crisis since WWII.” Was this on your mind as you made the film?

I started to make the film before the waves of refugees to Europe became a crisis, so it couldn’t be on my mind. But Arendt’s preoccupation with the state of existence of the refugee is so basic in her thinking that I had to stress it. Not only that being a Jewish refugee underlined her identity, [but] she believed that their state of existence was the incarnation of the most dark dynamics of exclusion of the other, socially and politically: The waves of expulsion that made minorities subhuman and rightless people [during] the deterioration of nation states in World War I were considered by her as a historical moral break. It might be that we are experiencing today another kind of moral break with new characteristics.

Your last film, Good Garbage, was about the daily lives of Palestinian garbage pickers in occupied territory. Did you see anything in Arendt’s work, particularly about stateless people, that might mirror the situation in Palestine today?

I cannot tell you what Arendt would have said to that, but I can tell you what I took from her thinking. One of the things she pointed out back in 1944 when she wrote Zionism, Reconsidered is that she believed that any polity that we create, any combination, any federation, it should guarantee the equality between the majority and the minority. This is a point that I take a lot from today, because, for me, in a way, the two-state solution is providing this security. Maybe there are other ways, too, but right now I cannot see another way. I don’t know what she would say [to that], but I think we should take this direction very strongly, because a terrible reality is taking over and there is a very difficult tensions among Israelis and Palestinians everywhere.

You don’t state any connections with the modern day in your film explicitly — you let the works of Arendt, and those who knew her, speak for themselves. Could you explain why you chose to tell the story this way?

I did that deliberately. I believe that the connections can be [drawn] easily, but only after one gets a clear idea about her ideas who were formed and crystallized out of the specifications of the reality she experienced. Arendt may have defined herself as a political theorist, but theories had meaning for her only if they are strongly related to experience and reality. In this way I believe it is much more difficult to copy and paste her insights into our reality. The similarities are obvious, but we still need to work out the specifications of our time. History never repeats itself exactly. It only provides us lessons, and any adaptation of known patterns of totalitarianism and chauvinism should make all bells ring loud and clear. I also didn’t want to imply that I can speak for Arendt regarding our time. I can only make observations on the basis of what I personally take from her thought.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

*Update — April 29, 2016: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Ada Ushpiz’s name.