Overview: Archive footage accompanies the correspondence and memoirs of Heinrich Himmler, chief architect of the Holocaust. Kino Lorber; 2014 (Germany); unrated; 94 minutes.
Inside the Mind of a Serial Killer: Cinema accepts that the psychology of killing is fascinating subject matter. Countless documentary filmmakers (most recently Joshua Oppenheimer in The Act Of Killing and The Look Of Silence) have attempted to get inside the minds of genocide perpetrators. Others, such as Claude Lanzmann (Shoah, The Last Of The Unjust) strive for straight, first-person testimonies. Vanessa Lapa’s The Decent One finds itself somewhere between the two. The extracts from Himmler’s diary have a matter of fact tone, but their cherry-picking taps into a morbid fascination with serial killer psychology. Opening with Himmler’s sickly childhood as Germany lurches into World War I, Lapa’s documentary concerns itself not only with understanding Himmler’s state of mind but also presenting him as a three dimensional man: a husband and father, a man who women fell in love with, and a man who inspired pride in his children.
Radicalisation: Racing through Himmler’s childhood, Lapa reveals a youth infused with piano, stamp gluing and enthusiastic war games. In a myriad of formative statements we feel Himmler slipping into radical politics. Russian prisoners of war “multiply like vermin”. Later, similarly prejudiced feelings inform Himmler’s political directives concerning homosexuals and Jews. Filled with mourning for his formerly strong “Fatherland” Himmler worries endlessly about “the young undisciplined generation” and women no longer wanting to be mothers. Given the oppressive Treaty of Versailles which brought WWI to a close, it’s likely the yearning for Germany’s former glory was common amongst boys Himmler’s age. Yet Lapa assumes much of this contextual knowledge and any attempts to distinguish reasons for Himmler’s peculiar, mounting extremism come up empty. It’s Himmler’s radicalisation that is, perhaps, most relevant to modern audiences but The Decent One fails to sink its teeth into the relationship between his burgeoning attitudes and evolving Nazi ethos: to what extent one influenced the other remains frustratingly vague and a problematic side-effect of Lapa’s decision to abstain from heavy contextual narrative.
Through the Lens of Hindsight: Combined with very tangible hindsight this absence of contextual detail leaves Lapa’s film open to accusations of sensationalism. The gravity of Himmler’s birth cannot possibly be comprehended by those celebrating it but – by its very emphasis – The Decent One makes it evident we’re witnessing a turning point in human history. The precise phrases and statements selected by Lapa are pregnant with hindsight too. “People don’t like me,” admits the frustrated Himmler. Later he says, “I can predict the horrors of the future,” but what exactly he means by this is unclear and, very likely, impossible to ascertain. In short, Lapa’s documentary pushes exactly those buttons we might expect it to and the contrast between ‘then’ and ‘now’ works against her vision to reveal the world as seen through the eyes of her subjects. The film’s carefully selected extracts come from a private collection acquired by Lapa’s production company 60 years after Himmler’s death. Made up of 273 letters, the diary of Himmler’s wife, the baby-journal of Himmler’s daughter, Gudrun, and her diary between the ages of twelve and sixteen, it is fair to say that The Decent One could only ever provide a brief snapshot of this family’s life. That the original documents have not yet been printed in the English language is a source of further frustration for British and American audiences.
Squaring the Circle: Lapa unites her extracts with archive footage, largely from private collections and previously unseen. Flicking between silent films (with new sound effects) Lapa cleverly evokes the random transitions of human thought, sometimes inspired by word association, at other times making inferences between the lines: harrowing firing squad images sit side-by-side with Himmler’s happy statement that Gudrun can’t fully comprehend the war. The most shocking juxtaposition between word and image is stored up for Lapa’s finale. The ‘decency’ of the film’s title comes to encompass not only an idea of Himmler’s wider identity beyond war crimes, but also an abhorrent Nazi belief: that the ability of the SS to remain ‘decent’ in the face of genocide was a trait worthy of glory and pride. Such assertions combined with distressing death camp images make it even harder to reconcile Himmler’s private life with his crimes. Lapa’s film is flawed but it does not fail. Far from helping us to understand Himmler’s actions, The Decent One demystifies Himmler’s own perception of himself and further illuminates the incomprehensible nature of genocide, finding the space to capture much smaller wartime experiences – from infidelity to a child’s worry about losing a parent – along the way.