You are now entering the Jewish Currents archive.

The Uncivil Servant: Hannah Arendt and Chantal Akerman

Mitchell Abidor
March 26, 2016

Two Film Events in New York

by Mitchell Abidor

Discussed in this essay: Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt, a documentary by Ada Ushpiz. Zeitgeist Films, 2015, 125 minutes; Chantal Ackerman: Images Between the Images, A Retrospective. Brooklyn Academy of Music, April 1 - May 1, 2016.

[caption id=“attachment_41113” align=“alignleft” width=“300”]Scene from Chantal Ackerman's "Jeanne Dielman" Scene from Chantal Ackerman’s “Jeanne Dielman”[/caption]

HANNAH ARENDT was a prolific writer, an important thinker in the fields of moral and political philosophy, and the friend (and in one particularly unfortunate case, lover ) of many essential figures in 20th-century intellectual life. Yet if her name is mentioned in company, there is but one book that comes to mind, Eichmann in Jerusalem, and but one idea from the thousands of pages of her writings: the banality of evil.

It is a tribute to the book and to Arendt’s willingness to boldly swim against the current that this work, which dates from more than a half-century ago, still maintains such a hold, still raises hackles, and is still widely debated. However crucial Eichmann in Jerusalem was to her oeuvre and fame, however, she was far more than that, and Ada Ushpiz’s documentary, Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt, is a noble attempt to place that work within the rich context of Arendt’s body of work and the life of exile and outsiderness she lived.

The story of Arendt’s life is recounted: her childhood in Konigsberg, the early death of her father, her student years n Marburg and her affair with Martin Heidegger; her exile, her troubled relations with Zionism, her removal to America; all of it set against archival footage, most of it having little directly to do with Arendt herself.

Friends and colleagues and critics comment on her work, long chunks of which are read in voice-over. These selections are judiciously chosen, demonstrating Arendt’s lifelong insistence on the need for pluralism, her hatred of anti-Semitism, her analysis of the dehumanizing effects of totalitarianism and the helplessness of the refugee, and her suspicion of nationalism, with Jewish nationalism a subject of particular concern.

Though the film is entitled “active life,” the activity in it is all of the mind, and a documentary about ideas is a difficult gamble, which Ushpiz doesn’t entirely carry off. Over two hours of selections read against uninteresting images is a stretch, and the last ten years of her life are treated almost as an afterthought. Reference is made by an interview subject to her beloved husband’s infidelity, but we hear nothing about it. Even the scandal of Eichmann is mentioned as if we were aware of all its ins and outs.

The most lively parts of the film occur in clips of interviews on German and French TV and radio, where Arendt comes across as someone unwilling to accept cant in any form, where she forthrightly calls Eichmann a “clown,” where she reminds us that “thinking itself is a dangerous enterprise, but not thinking is even more dangerous.” The spark of life in these excerpts stand out from the rather monotonous tone of the rest of the film.

If Vita Activa leads people to turn to her other works, to The Origins of Totalitarianism and On Revolution, it will have rendered a great service.

FOR THOSE INTERESTED in film, far more consequential than Vita Activa are the multiple venues in New York that will be showing the films of Chantal Akerman in April. The BAM Cinematheque is having a retrospective from April 1st to May 1st, the Museum of the Moving Image will be showing her D’Est the first weekend of April, and Film Forum will be screening a documentary about Akerman, I Don’t Belong Anywhere, and her masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.

The Belgian-born Akerman committed suicide in October 2015, shortly after No Home Movie (to be seen at BAM from April 1-15), her documentary about her mother’s experiences during the Holocaust, was savagely received at a film festival in Lausanne. That film, a tribute to her mother, who was central to Akerman’s life and concerns, is not her only direct homage to her mother; an early film, Letters from Home, was constructed around letters from Akerman’s mother while the filmmaker was living in New York in the 1970s.

Another specifically Jewish film, the rarely seen, Histoires d’Amerique, about Jewish life in America, will also be shown at BAM. But even in films not directly Jewish, her sense of the Jewish exilic condition (a word applied to Hannah Arendt in Vita Activa by the philosopher Judith Butler) permeates her works, most strikingly in her gloss on Kafka’s tortured relationship to bachelorhood, Les Rendez-Vous d’Anna.

Of course, there was far more than Jewishness in Akerman’s work, which was austere and formalist to a fault. A film like D’Est, with its endless traveling shots of people in the gray misery of the post-socialist world of Eastern Europe, shows the rich possibilities of a minimalist cinema. And we will also have an opportunity to one of the great masterpieces of cinematic modernism and of the modern cinema, Jeanne Dielman, Akerman’s rigorous, three-and-a-half-hour portrait of the daily life of a proper middle-class woman in Brussels whom we follow through her daily chores, her meals, her daily tricks, until it all cracks in the end.

Films like her eccentric musical Golden Eighties are not to be missed, and indeed, the only film in the BAM retrospective I strictly advise against is her deadly adaptation of Proust’s La Captive.

It is strictly the chance of film scheduling that leads me to write about Arendt and Akerman at the same time. Yet both women, in their very different ways, worked both out and in from their Jewishness as an irreducible part of their beings and a source of both joy and unhappiness.

Mitchell Abidor, our contributing writer, is the recipient of a Hemingway Grant from the French Ministry of Culture for his new translation of Emmanuel Bove’s A Raskolnikoff. His other new books are Voices of the Paris Commune and his collection of writings by and about the anarchist “propagandists of the deed,” Death to Bourgeois Society.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.