The Instruction of Evil

Vita-Activa-The-Spirit-of-Hannah-Arendt-Trailer-1-SD-GoldPoster

Hannah Arendt and the cold behavior of ideology.

Today opens the Portland Jewish Film Festival, presented by Northwest Film Center. Over the next two weeks, 15 films will screen from directors across the globe, strung together in the telling of Jewish history and culture.

I first watched Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt, which screens on June 28th. I didn’t know anything about her, but I’ve been taught things about the holocaust, about Nazism, and I haven’t questioned the evil of Hitler since the day I first heard his name in 6th grade, before watching Schindler’s List. As a Jewish German-born philosopher and in her mid-thirties during World War II, Arendt’s work examines the ideologies directly related to her life circumstances: totalitarianism, politics, power, antisemitism, refugees and human rights. She’s been harshly criticized for what many perceive to be her harsh and unsympathetic configuring of what happened in the Holocaust, and detached way of reporting on the mass eradication of Jewish people under Hitler.

This 2016 film directed by Ada Upshitz tracks her life from beginning to end and although I would guess Upshitz is an admirer of Hannah, it’s not because the film is told in a forgiving, soft or on the other hand, vindictive way. It’s an objective telling of the events and influences of a person’s life. Ushiptz begins at the beginning and ends at the end. There are many scenes looking out train windows, over which letters between Hannah and a small cast of lovers, fellow philosophers and teachers are read. Text from her novels break up historical footage and photos, and simplify the points her long letters begin to hint at as if the film itself is a lecture. Interviewees recall her controversial relationships, and voice their own criticisms or sympathies. In total, the film moves along so that an entire life passes by in 2 hours.

Although it spans her entire life, the film centers on the “banality of evil,” an observation Arendt made during the trial of Adolf Eichmann which she reported for The New Yorker. Eichmann was charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity for sending millions of Jews to concentration camps. Her terming his behavior “banal” spurred an outcry of harsh criticism.

The evil is defined as evil by us on the outside of that ideology.

The film illuminates Arendt’s thinking behind the phrase. Arendt explains that under a system of beliefs, the actions of Eichmann are banal because they were the results of an unthinking brain. It was normal, in those circumstances – in a totalitarian state, a tyranny, the efficiency of the system depends on the unthinking masses.

Arendt in An Interview

Arendt in An Interview

According to Arendt’s philosophy, the evil didn’t lurk behind flaming, cunning red eyes as she may have observed we want to believe. Instead, the suffering of millions was carried out in the hands of unthinking cows, perfect cogs in an ideology which didn’t spawn from a specific hatred of Jews but from a tyrannical system that standardized and structured terrible mass murder as a way to uphold authority.

The film goes in depth about her views on crime, guilt, and responsibility employing a logic that is simultaneously chilling and enlightening.

I am not a student of philosophy. I had to rewind many times to allow the denser points to sink in. Although, these points started to appear less lofty and rather simplistic. At the moment any of us start to question “How could this happen?” in a way that digs beyond mere cause and effect, and probes circumstances and ideologies (whether we are aware that’s what we are questioning) we all become students of philosophy.

So what does evil look like in the ideal democracy, where we are all supposedly free-thinking, free-expressing?

Today, it is perceived as evil by us that someone has walked into a nightclub to kill 49 homosexuals. The Orlando gunman was following in a ritual someone who pledges allegiance to ISIS would carry out. The evil is defined as evil by us on the outside of that ideology, but not on the outside of Earth, where we are all sharing everything.

There is a haunted feeling I had watching it and this perspective was like an injection of a drug, one that distorts reality to reveal a more indescribable but honest and primitive one. Our realities are shaped by systems of beliefs, laws of nature sometimes are undermined. Are we not good or evil, but simply thinking and un-thinking? Acting based on an order that an ideology has supplied for us?

The Portland Jewish Film Festival is an opportunity to ponder religious and overall cultural issues from the lens of Jewish heritage and contemporary life. I will bring another film review soon, but to see the entire program, visit nwfilm.org.




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  1. Estevan M.

    “. . . an injection of a drug, one that distorts reality to reveal a more indescribable but honest and primitive one.” Great analogy! I am pretty fascinated with these sorts of experiences and ways to invoke them more, with or without drugs. . . Or experiences that are unique and strange that offer an opportunity for unique and strange insights to be gained. Performance art comes to mind as experiences that can do this, but there are probably a vast amount of diverse things that do this . . .

    Also, Laws of Nature vs Systems of Belief… Living by what is as opposed to what should. Very challenging, because what is can be very painful and / or not immediately apparent — how do you know what you know? More often than not I don’t know, or maybe don’t want to know. Ha.

    “…beyond mere cause and effect, and probes circumstances and ideologies” Hell yeah! The world is super complex and super (arguably) subjective in this manner, mental health being something I was thinking about earlier today as a prime example. But I find myself lost in the uncertainty of it all a lot of the time. Surely some things are certain?

    Either way this was a really well written review I thought.


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