At the end of World War II, advancing American forces came upon the home of Heinrich Himmler, one-time head of the SS and architect of the so-called ‘Final Solution’ that industrialised the systematic eradication of Europe’s Jewish population. Contrary to standing orders, the soldiers looted Himmler’s private documentation and kept it for themselves. As decades passed, the documents made their way in and out of private hands without ever being published until the parents of director Vanessa Lapa decided to buy them as source material for this very documentary.
Drawing on documents that include diary entries, personal correspondence, office memos and public statements, the film tries to reconstruct the life of Heinrich Himmler in such a way as to give us some insight into the man behind the plot to exterminate Europe’s Jews.
Things don’t exactly get off to an auspicious start as the portrait that emerges from the earliest documents is pretty much exactly what you would expect from a committed Nazi: Apparently Himmler was a privileged but socially insecure young man who hated Jews, loved his country, and generally yearned to form part of some greater force that would give his life some semblance of meaning. In short, Himmler was a teenaged mediocrity and if you were to exchange his German nationalism and anti-Semitism for American nationalism and Islamophobia you’d pretty much have your average American teenager’s Facebook feed. Charitably viewed, Himmler’s teenaged insecurities form a rather banal point about our own capacity for evil but in truth, Lapa really struggles to gain any form of traction on the earliest documents. While The Decent One definitely perks up once Himmler leaves university and joins the Nazi party, the type of information that Lapa chooses to extract from the documents will leave you wondering about the soundness of her methods.
Arguably the most famous documentary about the Holocaust, Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah set the tone for how to deal with this type of information. Nearly ten hours long and often punctuated by awkward silences, the film moves around Poland talking to survivors, witnesses and perpetrators of the Holocaust who describe what they did and saw in their own words. Lanzmann’s film has been hugely influential precisely because much of its power comes from the authenticity of its sources: The camera rolls, people talk and the horrors they describe are entirely their own, no sexing-up required. As is entirely her prerogative, Lapa eschews Lanzmann’s methods in favour of her own editorial techniques.
Lapa makes a great show of putting the documents in the foreground of the film and many shots of Himmler’s angular hand-writing give the impression that the documents are being allowed to speak for themselves. However, take a step back from the images of Himmler’s correspondence and you start to realise that Lapa’s editorialising is so aggressive that it smacks of desperation and frequently borders on the outright manipulative. For example, one of the earliest exchanges of letters between Himmler and his future wife finds Himmler referring to himself as a ‘naughty man’ for spending too much time away from his fiancé, to which the woman playfully responds that she will exact a terrible revenge for his absence. Now… in the context of hundreds of personal letters, this exchange would probably come across as the slightly awkward flirtations of a sexually active couple but Lapa isolates these sentence fragments and instructs her voice actors to deliver readings that encourage the audience to conclude that the future Mr. and Mrs. Himmler has a relationship that was a bit kinky if not actually sadomasochistic. Also suspect is the way that Lapa juxtaposes a document relating to stomach problems caused by prolonged opium use with Himmler’s passing assertion that he had experienced a touch of constipation while on the Eastern front. Again, when seen in the context of an on-going personal correspondence, such an admission might come across as little more than a comment on Himmler’s health but Lapa frames the information in a manner that encourages us to infer that Himmler was a habitual drug user. Aside from being dubious historical practice, such manipulative sensationalism only serves to highlight the extent to which Lapa struggles to find anything new to say about Himmler that hasn’t been said before: There are no private doubts to be found here, only the belief that he was doing the right thing and that history would prove him right.
Setting aside Lapa’s sensationalism and failure to get to grips with her biographical subject, The Decent One remains an engaging documentary as Lapa uses some fascinating footage of life in Nazi Germany and her fondness for dubbed-in sound effects really brings those old film reels to life. In some ways, it is regrettable that Lapa chose to focus on Himmler himself as the photographs, footage and writings of his family do provide an interesting insight into what it must have been like to be the family of a prominent Nazi. For example, the film makes it pretty clear that Himmler started having an affair quite early on but while his wife quite obviously realised that something was going on, she never raised the issue with her husband and seems to have gone out of her way to seem happy and pleasant when Himmler did finally return home on leave. Also interesting are mentions of a school teacher who allowed Himmler’s daughter to cheat on exams and neighbours who would shower the Himmler children with gifts in the hope of gaining their father’s friendship.
As a documentary about the life of Heinrich Himmler, The Decent One is a shallow, manipulative failure but look beyond the moral elephant in the room and you will find loads of fascinating insights into the moral compromises made by the people who claimed to love him, it is just a shame that Lapa failed to grasp the true value of the primary sources made available to her.