A cache of personal letters, diaries and documents thought to belong to SS-leader and inner-circle Nazi Heinrich Himmler forms the backbone of new documentary “The Decent One,” which had its World Premiere at the Berlin Film Festival last week. Director Vanessa Lapa, granted unique advance access to the papers while they were being authenticated (the private, Israel-based collection to which they belong is owned by her father), has crafted a competent and unsensational—if ironically titled—film that, while it does offer us an impressionistic glimpse of Himmler’s psyche, doesn’t quite yield the kind of revelations that those of us eternally fascinated by the conundrum of personal morality amongst the Third Reich leadership might hope to see brought to light. SS Reichsfuhrer Himmler was central in the development and the implementation of the euphemistic “Final Solution,” but while Lapa’s sometimes pointedly contrasting archive-imagery becomes progressively more shocking, it’s more often hard for us to relate the snippets of voiceover we hear (actors reading excerpts as Himmler himself, his wife, his mistress, his daughter etc) to the wider horrors that were happening at his direct command. Perhaps, as is so often the case with Holocaust-related films, those horrors are simply too enormous for us to grasp in any meaningful way. But Lapa’s documentary, lacking a broad sense of historical context, feels oddly like it increases the distance between perpetrator and crime, rather than reducing it, until its shocking closing moments.
That said, if you come to the film with a little prior knowledge, the dimensionalizing of Himmler is an interesting process in itself. In other depictions of the Third Reich, Himmler often comes across as unmemorable and colorless, the “chicken farmer,” as he was disparagingly referred to behind his back—a weak-chinned cipher who by common account rose to a towering position in the regime purely through his early connection to Hitler and a doggedly obedient outlook, rather than because of any particular talent or ideological drive. Where the larger-than-life Air Force-head Goering and the sly propaganda minister Goebbels are such instantly recognizable figures, to the point of caricature, many would have trouble picking Himmler out of a lineup, despite his seniority in the movement. And yet the picture that emerges here is not of a man of no character. In fact we can trace, in his own words, signs of incipient anti-Semitism, Aryan idealization and a hyper-conservative view of the role of women in society (even for the time) long before he joined the Nazi Party in 1923.
But more than the evolution of his toxic political world view, the film chooses excerpts from the trove of documentation that give us a sense of Himmler as a person. From childish diary entries, to the time in college that he noted self-pityingly “people don’t like me” and launched into an extremely teenagerly fit of self-loathing (hating his own “chatterbox weak-minded” ways), in his early years he seems petulant and rudderless like, we guess, a lot of young men, then and now. And then he fell in love. And as much as we’d imagined him to be the ultimate bureaucratic cold fish, it appears that he and his wife Marga were pretty passionate in the early days at least, with a weird private lovers’ lexicon in which they refer to each other as “evil” and threaten each other with “revenge” for their separation so often and so heavily that it can only have been a euphemism for sex. A daughter, Gudrun, was born but as Marga was older than Heinrich, it proved the last child she could have, something that made his later affair with his secretary Helga not just sanctioned by the powers-that be, but encouraged in the name of the Nazi ideology of “pure” Aryan reproduction. So, an awkward adolescence, followed by love, marriage, fatherhood and an affair with his secretary—could anything be more ordinary?
However, as the film moves roughly chronologically excerpting segments that refer to Himmler’s rise through the Nazi ranks, the seizure of power, and up to the outbreak of war and beyond, it becomes more fragmentary. And while Lapa has done some fine work in finding unusual and little-seen documentary footage from the era, like pictures of Hitler spare-wheel-covers for cars and children’s birthday parties with swastika flags flying merrily in the background, that work is rather undercut by her insistence on clearly post-synced sound effects to the presumably silent footage, which become distracting rather than immersive—all staccato footsteps and “rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb” style murmurings. And on occasion, even with our hazy grasp of German, the subtitles seemed to be doing scant justice to some of the subtleties of the original text, which is all the more egregious because the words often come wholesale from Himmler’s pen; you’d imagine an accurate interpretation of their nuances would be paramount.
As the film winds into its final quarter, the imagery necessarily becomes much darker, but even though we were steeling ourselves for concentration camp footage, we were aghast at what we saw—there are scenes here absolutely not for the fainthearted that were all the more shocking for coming after what had mostly had that jolly-olden-days stock footage look up till then. Executions (essentially snuff movies) and a lingering image of a pile of naked bodies, limbs grotesquely entangled, are the visual accompaniment to a speech of Himmler’s in which he gives his thoughts on SS ideals—and it’s here that the word “decent” occurs frequently, backdropped against some of the most stomach-churning-ly indecent pictures we’ve ever seen. It is not subtle, but it makes a point that the rest of the documentary only manages to hint at every so often: Himmler’s human attributes—his love affairs, his affection for his daughter, his diligence, his prissiness, his (misplaced) sense of loyalty—these were not one side of a split personality, the reverse of which was the deranged monomania that sent millions to their death. They were in fact different expressions of the same sensibility. And that is the challenging, deeply troubling moral that “The Decent One” all too briefly brings home to us, and for which it is worth your time: that it is possible to be a deeply ordinary, insignificant, petty and unremarkable man, and to be a genocidal mass murderer at the very same time. “I’m off to Auschwitz,” wrote Himmler cheerfully to his wife at one point, “Kisses, your Heini.” [B-]