Hannah Arendt is an unlikely social-media star. Newly relevant 40 years after her death, the German-born philosopher's work is distinctly ill-suited to contemporary tools of relevance. Twitter's context of no context values aphorism, parody and potted wisdom — branded content available in bulk. Israeli filmmaker Ada Ushpiz makes an earnest, impressively researched attempt to distill her subject, beginning where common knowledge of Arendt's work generally ends. Published in 1963, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil consists of Arendt's reporting on the 1961 war-crimes prosecution of Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann. Vita Activa uses as a sort of motif the phrase that came to haunt Arendt, teasing out in quotes and moments the intricate philosophy it invokes. Evil is not the province of monsters, of the unspeakable, but a friend to cliché, "a surface phenomenon … the more superficial someone is the more likely he will be to yield to Evil." This Eichmann was nothing more or less than human, not a sadist and perhaps not even an anti-Semite — but merely a functionary whose evil derived from his inability or unwillingness to think and to empathize.
Vita Activa traces the controversy Arendt provoked with this idea; even now, notes Arendt's friend Richard Bernstein, to bring it up is to risk a brawl. Arendt defended until her death her moral philosophy of evil, despite the accusations it brought: that she was an apologist for the Nazis, diminishing their crimes.
The title belies the film's modest stakes and rather straightforward tack: Insofar as Ushpiz succeeds in putting the most provocative, salient and damning aspects of Arendt's work into a lucid context, she exposes the limits of her own approach.