The Decent One Dir. Vanessa Lapa

[Kino Lorber; 2014]

Styles: documentary, biography, war
Others: Night and Fog, Hotel Terminus, Max

Abelard and Heloise. Henry Miller and Anais Nin. Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Heinrich and Marga Himmler? No, the Reichsführer of the SS, one of the primary architects of the Holocaust, does not rank with these men of letters, whose correspondence with their loved ones was beautiful, touching, and illuminating of both themselves and of the human condition. What is most striking about the letters to and from Himmler which comprise Vanessa Lapa’s documentary The Decent One lies not in technical virtuosity or philosophical insight; rather, that bearing witness to a more tender side of one of history’s most deplorable men does nothing to humanize him, but rather makes him appear that much more of a monster.

Culled from stacks of letters, journals, photographs, and other personal ephemera from his private collection, The Decent One chronicles the entire arc of Himmler’s life, from his birth to his death by suicide. Aside from brief title cards which provide historical context, there is no omniscient third person narrator; there are no experts or talking heads; all of the footage comes from contemporaneous newsreels and candid photographs and video. Nonetheless, through editorial selection, Lapa and co-writer Ori Weisbrod do manage to sketch a vague narrative of psychosocial cause and effect.

Born in 1900, Himmler was a nervous and sickly youth who often fretted over his perceived social inferiority, which he blamed on a tendency to talk too much. Still a child during the first World War, Himmler took a great deal of pride in his national heritage and expressed disappointment that he was not yet of age to enlist. “I can be useful to the Fatherland,” he wrote, stating that “it would be a pleasure” if another war broke out so that he could prove himself to his peers and countrymen. A man who often confused the honorable for the severe and who defensively distinguished between being “a military man” and “a bureaucrat,” one gets the impression that Himmler saw in the Nazi party an opportunity for the camaraderie and the fortified sense of identity which eluded him throughout his youth, an extension of the nationalistic pride he perceived during World War I.

As he progresses through the ranks of the SS, Himmler receives letters of congratulation from his parents and commendation from Adolf Hitler. It is the former which is more chilling, and Lapa hangs most of her film upon the discord of the microcosmic and the macrocosmic in Himmler’s life. One of the ways she does this is by making the letters between Himmler and his wife Marga the primary focus of the narrative. With Himmler often away on Party business (you know, like making sure all the death camps were fully operational), their relationship was largely defined by distance and shared ideology. What starts as playful sexual innuendo soon graduates to quibbles over what model car to purchase and what color to paint the kitchen. But just when you’re afraid you may be charmed by the romantic pursuits of the young, lovestruck “Heini,” Marga complains of money owed to her and wonders, “Is everyone as bad as my pack of Jews?” and Himmler unleashes his characteristic anti-Semitic vitriol and rhetoric.

Himmler’s letters to everyone, including his wife, become increasingly political — and polemical — as the war ramps up and rages on. As they do, one word’s frequency increases exponentially: “decent.” As the racism and homophobia become more pronounced, so too does Himmler’s desire for his men to display those qualities of decency which define good Aryan stock. This is, of course, a man whose idea of decency was to implement the concentration camps and gas chambers because he feared the psychological damage he would inflict upon his officers by making them commit genocide by rifle. Still, the myopic hypocrisy that Himmler displays in his correspondence is what is most frightening about The Decent One’s portrait of him: his utter obliviousness to the irony of a child who was beset by illness growing up to promote eugenics, a husband to an older wife past her childbearing years condemning families which produce fewer than four healthy babies, a man who prides himself for being from the only country which is “decent toward animals” and using it as a model for how they should treat their “human animals.”

Even more upsetting than Himmler’s parents conflating their son’s professional success and their own residual feelings of bitterness from the first World War into a deeply misguided sense of pride is a brief aside from Himmler’s daughter Gudrun. A teacher notices the girl cheating on her test, copying answers from a book in her lap, but says nothing; Gudrun writes in her diary that it was “decent” of her teacher to not reprimand her. That children’s minds are “little pitchers”, as Dickens so eloquently observed in Hard Times, means they will often accept that which is given to them as fact despite its incongruity to reason. That such egregious prejudice and self satisfaction could be so unremarkable and thus so infectious perfectly illustrates Hannah Arendt’s infamous remark about “the banality of evil.”

Still, there is one topic about which Himmler never spoke with his wife, and that was the concentration camps. Did he actually feel shame or remorse for his actions, or was it simply not pleasant dinnertime conversation? The Decent One makes no such speculations; Lapa does nothing with her material besides present it, and she does that somewhat clumsily. The recitations of the letters are well performed, and the selections are fascinating, but the excessively literal sound design borders on pastiche and the film as a whole is anticlimactic. There’s always been an impulse to understand the deviant mind, and social media has made the minutia of an individual’s life more palatable than ever. Still, one wishes The Decent One had done more with its resources. It is an ugly film, not for any technical or formal deficit, but because it neither redeems nor vilifies its despicable subject. It expands, but does not illuminate.

It is useful, however, insofar as it demonstrates how easy it was for a Himmler or a Goebbels or an Eichmann to exist and even to thrive in post-WWI Germany. The Decent One says more about Himmler’s time than about Himmler the man, largely because Himmler the man is so unremarkable, which ultimately makes his actions that much more frightening.

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