Heinrich Himmler was not only the most terrifying figure in Adolf Hitler’s inner circle, he was also the most elusive of his henchmen to have gained tremendous power. Despite his inexorable rise from patriotic lad to the Nazi party’s propaganda leader and Hitler’s personal bodyguard, before heading the SS and the police and, from 1943, serving as minister of the interior, his character and personality remained a frustrating enigma. Inevitably it raises the question of how and why it was possible for someone as inconspicuous as he once was to eventually become Hitler’s right-hand man, solely responsible for overseeing the ‘Final Solution’.
Israeli filmmaker Vanessa Lapa’s documentary The Decent One tries to shine new light on Himmler’s murky psychological profile and, to some extent, the telling details that are revealed are haunting and illuminating in equal measure. The film is based on a newly discovered collection of documents, including hundreds of pages of diary entries and private letters between Himmler and his family, mixed with official correspondence. These documents are thought to have been found by US army officers in May 1945 in one of the Himmler family homes in Gmund, in the Bavarian Alps, but failed to get into the hands of the authorities until a few years ago. While most people might think that the number of documentaries on Hitler and his entourage have come close to exhausting the subject, what makes Lapa’s approach different is the disturbing sense of banality in the material. Recited in sometimes emphatic voice-over by actors, illustrated with photographs and archive footage, and accompanied by a heavy, occasionally sensational score mixed with amplified sound effects, the documents presented unravel the picture of a precocious, petty bourgeois who writes corny letters to his wife, and later to his mistress (his long-term secretary Hedwig Potthast), while his relentless bureaucratic bigotry, fierce anti-Semitism and urge to serve help him to quickly move up the party ladder right to the top.
Yet as historic events unfold, the consistent, progressively devastating flow of readings, combined with descriptive footage, becomes problematic and precariously unwieldy. Lapa’s presentation is at its best when it exposes Himmler’s inner thoughts and occasionally surprising considerations in the wealth of mundane private correspondence. But while there’s little doubt about the value of the film in terms of revealing new aspects of Himmler’s personality – albeit on a rather superficial level – the lack of impetus that characterises The Decent One almost from the outset, with its insistence on a very concrete formal investigation, offers little more than a reminder of dark times. Ultimately, it gives less insight into the actual psychology of an introverted mass murderer and war criminal and his repression of any sense of guilt than one would have hoped for.
Watch the trailer: