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Hannah Arendt as a refugee

Hannah Arendt's acknowledgments of the escape's existential impossibility are fiery, and form a fundamental premise in the documentary about the philosopher who himself fled to Paris in a politically polarized era.


Of: Helgard Mahrdt

Migrants and stateless people in large numbers, unwanted everywhere, with no chance of finding a new standpoint that is their own. Without a chance to find a state that wants them as new citizens, and without a chance to regain their human rights. The documentary The Spirit of Hannah Arendt is a reminder of this link in the chain reaction the First World War created. The Israeli-Canadian film from 2015, made by Ada Ushpiz and Ina Fichman and currently appearing at several film festivals, demonstrates one of Hannah Arendt's (1906 – 1975) main acknowledgments – which has a strong topicality these days. Heartbreaking, original black-and-white film clips from Paris in 1936 illustrate Arendt's basic insight that man loses something fundamental if it loses its place in the political community – when it loses its status as a citizen.

Screen Shot at 2016 01-13-11.35.32
The understanding of evil.
A couple or three years ago, Cinemateket showed another movie about Hannah Arendt: Margarethe von Trotta's feature film Hannah Arendt was about the Judeo-German-American political thinker who, in 1961, traveled to Jerusalem to write for the journal The New Yorker on the lawsuit against Adolf Eichmann, one of the largest Nazi criminals responsible for the Jewish transport to Auschwitz. Then The New Yorker published Arendt's report, it triggered a storm of protests. Almost all New York intellectuals chose the site. The Eichmann controversy lasted almost three years, triggering a flood of publications. In Trotta's feature film, we follow Hannah Arendt through these three years.
Also in The Spirit of Hannah Arendt the case against Adolf Eichmann gets considerable room, but it is set in a context of events that Arendt otherwise identified as key events in the first part of the 20th century. Such events include the end of the First World War in 1918 with its large flow of refugees; anti-Semitism and the national fire of 1933; Hitler's takeover of power in Germany in the 1940s; World War II and the Warsaw Ghetto, the 1944 Zionist Congress in New York; and the sense of happiness in European countries in 1945 over the liberation from Nazi occupation.
The facts are known today, but the documentary uses an aesthetic technique that conveys Hannah Arendt's understanding of evil in a way that does not seem educational or educational. On the contrary, the director is able to put together an impressive variety of different types of film material in a way that respects the viewer's ability to form his own opinion. Still, the film is not an abstract staging of Arendt's insights, but appeals to our brains and hearts, to thinking and to emotions: either by juxtaposing strong, impactful images, or by using quotes from Arendt that comment on film clips.

The superfluous. We see, for example, an original movie clip of anti-Semitic abuse against the Jewish population, immediately followed by a clip about Christian Christmas celebration, musically accompanied by the German Christmas song Oh Tannenbaum. As the film goes on, the director changes form, but not thematically: The exchange of letters with Karl Jaspers on the question of identity is withdrawn – here we hear two voices each trying to convey their opinion of German and Jewish identity to each other. At that time, the letters contributed to a deeper mutual understanding between Jaspers and Arendt. For those of us who live in a multicultural society today, their way of communicating – in friendship and with the respect that each of them is unique – is highly relevant.
The documentary is not a chronological tale of the 20th century – the century when both Nazism and Stalinism attempted to annihilate the people as human beings. It focuses on Arendt's attempt to understand evil, and it shows how Arendt relates this phenomenon to other central phenomena, such as redundancy of humans. Ushpiz and Fichman open the film with a sentence in white letters on a black bottom:
"'The Banality of Evil,' a term coined by Jewish political philosopher Hannah Arendt, is at the center of a worldwide moral and political debate that has spanned more than half a century." This is followed by information that provides a kind of guideline for the task the film has undertaken: «Arendt's confessions in the controversial book Eichmann in Jerusalem did the perpetrators of Nazism's crimes to normal, decent and law-abiding people. This heralded a new era in the research and understanding of the Holocaust. But it also provoked and upset many, both Jews and non-Jews, to such an extent that she was on the verge of being ostracized. ”

The film raises a claim that this production of large crowds made into refugees and as such superfluous was the predecessor of the Nazi-era insane mass production of corpses.

Throughout the film, we hear scientists comment on Arendt's thinking, her book on totalitarianism and her portrayal of the lawsuit against Eichmann, especially her claim of Eichmann as a clown, her shift from "radical evil" to "the banality of evil," and her criticism of role of the Jewish Councils during the Holocaust.

Big lots. The film is incredibly rich, both on visuals and on representations of Arendt's thinking. In particular, the imagery and texts about the refugees – both Arendt's own and the commentators' – have been given new relevance. We see Arendt's own escape to Paris in a politically polarized time, and we hear a refugee's own voice when quoted from Arendt's essay "We Refugees" (1944). This voice reminds us that man is a social being and that his life becomes difficult when social ties are cut. It is the 1936 original black and white clips of Paris that illustrate this insight. Here we see the French in rush hour rushing out of the trains and continuing on to the workplaces. The refugees, on the other hand, are on their way to the asylum center to get hot soup. Ada Ushpiz combines images and text, the visual and the language, in a way that reinforces each other. In addition, she gives the theme new depths, moves from the descriptive to the analytical, and draws in Arendt's basic insight into what loss man actually suffers when it loses state and political community: Then words lose their relevance, actions lose meaning, and man loses all their relationships.
The film raises a claim that this time's production of large crowds made into refugees and as such superfluous was the predecessor of the Nazi era's insane mass production of corpses.
Arendt himself belonged to this generation of refugees. We know that she turned her fate, that she succeeded in gaining recognition both in America and in Europe, the continent that forced her to flee. But being a refugee was a hard existential experience. Possibly, this experience can be considered valuable as it allows for approaches to the world from a standpoint that is outside the home, outside the masses and outside the collective. Idith Zertal, a professor at the University of Basel, commends Arendt for keeping this attitude throughout his life. What she had felt on her body gave her a unique insight and perspective on the world that is possibly more true than many others.
For us today, in the face of refugees who have lost their homes, the new documentary about Hannah Arendt is an alarm. The despair of the refugees is the same. But the European countries today have other tools to deal with the crisis. Still, we must not sleep. Why not? Because the victory over the Nazis in 1945 does not guarantee that the root of the ideology is gone. Hannah Arendt completed her analysis of totalitarianism by notifying this danger. And Ada Ushpiz's film reminds us of this again.


Mahrdt is an Arendt scientist, literary scholar, and state scholar.

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