THE DECENT ONE Hebrew title: Adam Hagon Directed by Vanessa Lapa Written by Lapa and Ori Weisbrod Running time: 94 minutes In German and English. Check with theaters for subtitle information.
Vanessa Lapa’s documentary portrait of SS chief Heinrich Himmler, The Decent One, is eerily fascinating. The movie is both a biography of Himmler and a history of Nazism, its soundtrack composed entirely (except for a brief interview in English at the beginning and the end, and background music) of excerpts from Himmler’s and his family’s letters and diaries. A few titles give historical context, but the words we hear are from these letters, read by actors.
Lapa, the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, came into possession of these letters when her father bought them at auction so she could use them to make this film, which won the Best Israeli Documentary Award at this summer’s Jerusalem Film Festival.
Using the letters instead of more conventional narration is a daring choice by Lapa, but she pulls it off because the ordinariness of Himmler’s words and the dullness of the man himself – he seems to have embraced Nazism because he failed in other arenas, not out of any particular passion – are so skillfully juxtaposed with archival photos and newsreel footage. Pictures of Himmler, his wife, his children and his mistress are blended into a visual collage that includes photographs and film of virtually every important milestone of World War II Europe. Hannah Arendt famously described Eichmann at his trial as embodying “the banality of evil,” but Himmler seems even less than banal – he comes across as downright trivial, a middle management type who curried favor with his boss by working as hard as he could. Throughout his letters, he repeats that he wants to be seen as a decent sort, which gives the film its title.
His anti-Semitism was a simple part of his world view, and he had no trouble ordering mass killings if they pleased “Uncle Adolf.”
As Himmler’s life unfolds in his cloying, grating, and even kitschy words, you’ll marvel at how commonplace most of that life was.
Born into a lower-middle class family, he longed to see combat in World War I, then was disappointed when the war ended. A nerdy guy, he was snubbed by members of a club he wanted to belong at university, a club that included Jews. He fell in love with a slightly older woman and was a doting father to his daughter. As he climbed the Nazi ladder, his wife stood by him, doing whatever she could to help his career, even entertaining groups of SS officers and their wives, although she was a nurse from a modest background and not comfortable in high society.
Eventually, as the war intensified, Himmler spent more and more time away from home and had an affair with his secretary, with whom he had two children. Like many men who cheat with their secretaries, he promised her he would divorce his wife, but didn’t. Eventually, he was captured by the British and committed suicide.
The letters among Himmler and his family members are so disconnected from the reality of the war, that they are surreal. His daughter wanted a pony – which he told her she could have after the war – and chocolate. Not once does he ever refer to the details of the Final Solution in the reams of letters, although many of them conclude with sign-offs such as “I am traveling to Auschwitz. Kisses, your Heini.”
This summary doesn’t do justice to the haunting brilliance of the photos and film clips that accompany the words. At the beginning, I wondered whether Lapa could sustain this level for the entire 94-minute running time, but the film only becomes more compelling as it goes on.
It’s a virtuoso feat of documentary filmmaking, but one that is both disturbing and demanding.