Diagnosing the internal conflict of high-ranking Nazi and family man Heinrich Himmler, Vanessa Lapa’s The Decent One exposes the indecency of the “decent”.
Indecent Proposalby Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Based on the letters found in Heinrich Himmler’s safe following Nazi the end of the Second World War, Vanessa Lapa’s The Decent One tells the personal story of the man behind the Nazi. Rather than focussing on his positions as Director of Police, Commander of the SS, Minister of the Interior or his role as head of the concentration camps responsible for the deportation and extermination of millions, Der Anständige reveals instead a compulsive letter-writer, corresponding with his parents from university, and then with his future wife Margareta, seven years his senior and the Matron of a Berlin hospital, and later his mistress Hedwig – often composed on a train on his way to and from the official Nazi Party meetings he organised and later between theatres of war, the German capital and extermination camps. The letters themselves were captured by American forces and should have remained classified, but somehow ended up hidden away beneath the bed of an Israeli artist in Tel Aviv.
Too young to be drafted in the First World War, the young Bavarian agronomy student Heinrich Himmler listed towards politics of a very nationalistic flavour, feeling bitterly Germany’s defeat and humiliation and the shameful, decadent excesses of the Weimar Republic. Falling in with Adolf Hitler, the wandering Himmler soon found a purpose organising speeches and rallies before heading up the SS and instigating the first concentration camp in Dachau. At the same time, travelling between Bavaria and Berlin, Himmler meets Margot and starts a long-term relationship with her. It’s only when the Fatherland calls though that their relationship is sanctified, and they fulfil their duty to provide more German children with a daughter Gudrun. Later they also foster Gerhard, the orphan son of an SS officer. It’s a domestic bliss, crowned by Himmler’s rising star in the Nazi Party, building their own house on Lake Tegern and presents from the front (confiscated furs, porcelain and fabrics). And just as he never spoke much to his wife about Nazi politics, Himmler’s letters reveal little of the business side of totalitarianism, retreating into a personal paradise of husbands and fathers. A paradise lost until now.
Unlike his wife and family, the Heinrich Himmler that we know is his public history; a leading Nazi rather than the private family man. So it’s strange that it should be these seemingly innocuous documents that come to light after over half a century later in Vanessa Lapa’s documentary The Decent One. Constructed out of actors intoning the letters, archive footage and photographs as well as informative intertitles that reveal the historic events going on at the same time, Lapa’s unusual bio-doc neatly evokes the period, its pressures and worries with admirable ease. In fact, the brilliant archive footage of pre-war Berlin is one of the film’s highlights. But the material is managed largely as an illustration of the letters, too infrequently creating the jarring juxtaposition between image and word, as Himmler’s mellifluous letters conflict with the grim realities of war.
Of course, Himmler’s letters only occasionally hint at politics. But neither do they reveal a great deal about the man other than a gift for self-delusion, as Himmler, like many of the soldiers below him, struggled with compartmentalising his German decency and the inhuman Nazi duty at hand. There are occasional lapses, as the Nazi hints at an inner struggle as politics escalates into violence and then murder. Nor do they reveal much about the man – just a certain hubris and arrogance behind the flimsy domestic substance. There is a thread of repeated references to decency, which Lapa picks out with her choice of title to spin her idea together; the hypocritical conflict between the family man who tries to live a decent life and his known role as high-ranking Nazi and instrument of the Final Solution. Like Hannah Arendt’s theory on the banality of evil, The Decent One tries to create a terrifying horror from the Nazi’s normalness, but without digging any deeper – unable with its format of personal letters to address the psychological contortions of a “decent” man who becomes a participant in murder, gassing and genocide. Instead, The Decent One divides Himmler quite simply into two, creating an unbridgable gulf between his two irreconcilable halves.
It’s baffling. But perhaps there’s more to it than the (seemingly self-evident) hypocrisy and duplicity of a Nazi soldier. And perhaps there is; the battle between sound and image reflects the incongruity of private and public lives; the willing self-deception of children, wives and parents who didn’t want to know any more; the spoken letters revealing the “innocence” of life lived in the Thirties and Forties in Germany while the images expose the hidden reality. Are these letters important? Perhaps. For if The Decent One has a meaning it’s that neither politics nor personal affairs can be locked away and kept secret. And that in choosing to keep his personal letters locked in a safe while proudly assuming his public deeds, Heinrich Himmler was far from being able to tell right from wrong. Which doesn’t seem very decent at all.
The Decent One is released on 3rd April 2015 in the UK