Hannah Arendt’s reflections on the existential impossibility of escape are more relevant than ever, and make up the basic premise in a new documentary film about the philosopher, who herself fled to Paris at a time of political polarisation.

Helgard Mahrdt
Published date: October 26, 2016

Migrants and stateless persons in large numbers, unwanted everywhere, without a chance to find a new place to call their own. Without a chance to find a state that wants them as its new citizens, and without the chance to regain their human rights. The documentary film The Spirit of Hannah Arendt is a reminder of this link in the chain reaction set off by the First World War. The Israeli-Canadian film from 2015 by Ada Ushpiz and Ina Fischman, currently being screened at several film festivals, demonstrates one of Hannah Arendt (1906-1975)’s most important reflections – which today is highly relevant. Heart-breaking, original film clips in black and white from Paris in 1936 illustrate Arend’s basic insight, that humans lose something fundamental when they lose their place in the political community – when losing their status as citizens.

The understanding of evil

A few years ago, Cinemateket in Oslo screened another film about Hannah Arendt: Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt was about the Jewish-German-American political thinker who travelled to Jerusalem in 1961 to write for The New Yorker about the trial against Adolf Eichmann, one of the worst Nazi criminals, responsible for the transportation of Jews to Auschwitz. When The New Yorker published Arendt’s article, it caused a storm of protests. Almost all intellectuals in New York chose sides. The Eichmann controversy lasted for almost three years and led to a flood of publications. In Trotta’s film, we follow Hannah Arendt through these three years.

The trial against Adolf Eichmann is given considerable space in The Spirit of Hannah Arendt as well, but it’s placed in the context of other events that Arendt identified as key events in the first part of the 20th century, including the end of the First World War in 1918 and the great flood of refugees; antisemitism and the Reichstag fire in 1933; Hitler’s coming to power and Germany in the 1940s; the Second World War and the Warsaw Ghetto, the Zionist Congress in New York in 1944; and the feeling of happiness in Europe in 1945 about the liberation from Nazi occupation. The facts are well-known today, but the documentary uses an aesthetic technique which relays Hannah Arendt’s understanding of evil in a way that does not come across as preachy or pedagogical. On the contrary, the director manages to contrast an impressive array of different types of film materials in a way that respects the viewers’ ability to make up an opinion of her own. Still, the film is not an abstract staging of Arendt’s insights, but appeals to both our brains and our hearts, to reflection and feeling: either, by comparing strong, impressive images, or by using quotes by Arendt, commentating on film clips.

The superfluous ones

fullFor instance, we see an original film clip of anti-Semitic violations of the Jewish population, immediately followed by a clip about Christian Christmas celebrations, musically accompanied by the German Christmas carol Oh Tannenbaum. When the film continues, the director changes the form, but not the subject matter: Arendt’s correspondence with Karl Jaspers about the question of identity are introduced – we hear two voices trying to present their respective opinions on German and Jewish identity to the other. At the time, the letters contributed to a deeper mutual understanding between Jaspers and Arendt. To us, living as we are in today’s multicultural society, their way of communicating – in friendship and respectful of the fact that they are both unique – is highly relevant.

The documentary is no chronological presentation of the 20th century – the century when both Nazism and Stalinism tried to annihilate humans as humans. It focuses on Arendt’s attempts at understanding evil, and shows how Arendt relates this phenomenon to other central phenomena, such as attempts at making humans superfluous. Ushpiz and Fichman open the film with a sentence written in white on a black background:

“’The banality of evil’, a term created by the Jewish political philosopher Hannah Arendt, is at the centre of a global moral and political debate which has lasted for more than half a century.” This is followed by information which provides a sort of guideline for the task the film has set out for itself: “Arendt’s reflections in her controversial book Eichmann in Jerusalem turned the perpetrators of Nazi crimes into normal, proper and law-abiding people. This foreshadowed a new era in research on and understanding of the Holocaust. But it also provoked and upset many people, both Jews and non-Jews, to such an extent that she almost became an outcast.”

Throughout the film, we hear researchers speak about Arendt’s philosophy, her book on totalitarianism and her presentation of the trial against Eichmann, particularly her statement of Eichmann as a clown, her change from “radical evil” to the “banality of evil”, and her criticism of the role of the Jewish councils during the Holocaust.

Great masses

The film is incredibly rich, both on photographic materials and of presentations of Arendt’s philosophy. Particularly the images and the texts about the refugees – both those of Arendt herself and the commentators – are given a new relevancy. We see Arendt’s on escape to Paris in a politically polarized time, and hear the voice of a refugee when Arendt’s essay “We refugees” (1944) is quoted. This voice reminds us that humans are social beings, and that their lives become difficult when social relations are severed. The black and white film clips from Paris in 1936 illustrate this insight. We see Frenchmen pouring out of trains during rush hour and continuing to their places of work. The refugees, however, are going to the refugee centres for hot soup. Ada Ushpiz combines text and images, language and the visual, in a way that is mutually reinforcing. She also brings new depth to the subject matter, moving from the descriptive to the analytical, introducing Arendt’s basic insight on the loss suffered by humans when they lose their state and their sense of political community: Words lose their relevance, actions lose their meaning and humans lose all their relations.

The film raises a claim that the production of great masses of people turned into refugees at this time, and hence made superfluous, were the predecessor to the insane mass production of dead bodies of the Nazi period.

Arendt herself belongs to this generation of refugees. We know that she turned her fate around, that she succeeded in achieving recognition in both America and Europe, the continent that turned her into a refugee. But being a refugee was a tough existential experience. We could possibly look at this experience as valuable in that it makes accessible approaches to the world from a position outside of the home, outside of the masses and outside of community. Idith Zertal, professor at the University of Basel, commends Arendt for having retained this attitude throughout her life. What she had felt on her own body, gave her a unique form of insight and perspective on the world which may be more true than that of many others. To those living today, who also meet refugees who have lost their homes, this new documentary about Hannah Arendt is a wake-up call. The desperation among refugees remains the same. But today, European countries possess other tools with which to handle the crisis. Still, we musn’t sleep. Why not? Because our victory over the Nazis in 1945 does not guarantee that the breeding ground for the ideology has disappeared. Hannah Arendt concluded her analysis of totalitarianism with a warning against this danger. And Ada Ushpiz’ film reminds us of it once again.


Modern Times Review