Even for a Nazi, Heinrich Luitpold Himmler was a monumentally unattractive person. With his pencil neck, his weak watery eyes, his Touché Turtle expression of prissy blandness, a less convincing example of Hitler’s theories of racial superiority would be difficult to find. That this apparently feeble specimen could wreak such obscene and widespread damage, causing the death of millions of people is a staggering fact. The question for the documentarian might not be how do we understand such a thing, but is there anything there really to understand? Vanessa Lapa’s documentary The Decent One (2014) exploits a wealth of documentation to reconstruct Himmler’s private life from the inside out.
Following the defeat of Germany in World War Two, a trove of personal letters, diaries, official correspondence, papers and speeches of Himmler’s were captured and somehow managed to survive. From a sickly and unpopular child growing up in Bavaria with a romantic attachment to the medieval heroes of Germany, Himmler moves to Berlin and a successful private clinic. As he works, his star increasingly begins to rise in the nascent Nazi party. An early believer, he is soon indispensable as an organiser in charge of the security for rallies and to protect the leadership of Adolf Hitler. At the same time he courts and later marries an older woman Marga, who he writes to extensively. The love letters, which the slightly OCD Himmler numbers precisely, are full of flirtation and saucy giddiness.
This is even the case as the Nazi party gains in power and prominence and violence is directed at its opponents and racial enemies, increasingly the Jews. Although as casually anti-Semitic as the next, Marga is – at first – no committed Nazi. “Why do you have to go to the Hitler rally when you already know what he is going to say?” she asks, leading Himmler to explain that he organises them. “Despite all the work I am well and sleep fine,” Himmler writes later as war has begun and Himmler is chest deep in the organisation of the Final Solution. As he writes this we see a freshly dug mass graves awaiting their victims who harassed by the waiting troops plod to their deaths. This is Lapa’s and the documentary’s main modus operandi. The juxtaposition of the inane and familiar details of a normal private life with the horrific day job of brutality and mass murder. There are some problems with this method. We hear Himmler’s disgust at homosexuals and this is played over familiar newsreel footage of young men of the Hitler Youth doing their gymnastic and aerobic exercises in their vests and shorts. There is something dangerously glib about blaming homophobia and the murder of homosexuals on repressed homosexuality.
Himmler and his daughter exchange a doting correspondence as we see a man beaten to death by staves. That the Nazis loved their daughters, wives and later mistresses and were themselves loved comes as no particular surprise. Himmler is also a concerned bureaucrat, worried about the well-being of his men who have to do the actually killing, suggesting hearty German entertainment as an antidote to the blues. He is also something of a hypocrite who writes of how nothing will be stolen and then hastily packs a package up for his own family. There are enlightening moments here and some surprising details but the banality of evil line is clichéd now to the point of irrelevance. His face expresses the banality without need for further explication. And the stock World at War footage, with obviously added sound effects and dubbing, can begin to have a numbing effect. Ultimately, The Decent One scratches the surfaces of a man without much of a personality who did terrible things. It comes as no great shock to discover there isn’t really anything underneath.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty