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A 2008 article in the German magazine Der Spiegel described SS chief Heinrich Himmler as “one of the most brutal mass murderers in world history,” concluding that without him, “the Holocaust would not have occurred.” The man behind the madness is the subject of Belgian-born, Israel-based filmmaker Vanessa Lapa’s documentary The Decent One (Der Anstadndige), a work composed entirely of archive footage, much of it consisting of photos, diaries and letters from Himmler’s own personal collection.
Sure to interest World War II buffs and aficionados of the Third Reich, this Israeli-Austrian-German production premiered in the Berlinale’s Panorama section, and should find a home with international fests, pubcasters and DVD labels specializing in historical fare. Otherwise, it’s perhaps too focused on the Reichsfuhrer’s personal life — including his many love messages to his wife, daughter and mistress — to interest the general public, while the director’s decision to add sound effects to silent images sometimes feels uncalled for.
Himmler took his own life on May 23, 1945, swallowing a cyanide capsule after British soldiers captured him at the close of the war. Allied officers later visited the home of his wife, Margarete, and seized tons of original documents, whose contents Lapa uses to paint an intimate portrait of a methodically dangerous man — one who was able to execute orders with little concern for his victims, while remaining fully convinced till the bitter end that he was doing what was best for his land and people.
Using voice actors to read through dozens of chronologically presented letters and diary entries, the filmmakers follow Himmler from his dog days as a student in Munich, where he fermented his anti-Semitic beliefs, to his adherence to the burgeoning National Socialist party, where he became a member of the SS (whose initial purpose was to provide security for party chief Adolf Hitler), rising to become the unit’s head officer and increasing its numbers from 300 to 20,000 by the end of the 1920’s.
As the Nazis seized power both through popular elections and sheer force, Himmler grew into one of Germany’s most feared superiors, working closely with Hitler to solidify their party’s domination while enforcing a doctrine that would exclude Jews, Gypsies, Communists, homosexuals and other unwanted persons from public life. Overseeing the foundation of the regime’s first concentration camp in Dachau, and increasing the SS’s ranks as the country geared up for war, Himmler would ultimately become one of the key architects of Hitler’s Final Solution, supervising a vast killing machine that would result in the death of millions of innocent civilians.
While these facts are already known, few people know how Himmler experienced these events first-hand, and what Lapa reveals through the man’s own voice is chilling indeed. Hardly concerned with the welfare of his many victims, Himmler nonetheless shows himself to be a rather caring (though often absentee) husband and father, initially wooing Margarete through a series of systematically numbered love letters, then checking in often on their daughter, Gudrun (nicknamed “Dolly”), as he conquers Germany and much of Europe alongside his fellow Nazis.
Venting his racism when boasting about the fight between “humans and sub-humans” while constantly claiming to be “convinced of our victory,” even when the war was already lost, Himmler appears as blinded by his beliefs as the Fuhrer himself (though he once tried, and failed, to negotiate a peace settlement behind Hitler’s back). Otherwise, he spends a lot of time worrying about his loved ones, sending them Christmas gifts as he visits extermination camps at Treblinka, Sobibor and Auschwitz, and doing his best to shield them from his young mistress (with whom he had two children).
The juxtaposition of the pleasant family man with the ruthless executioner is what Lapa is going for here, and along with editors Sharon Brook and Noam Amit, she assembles reams of photos and archive footage — including Nazi propaganda films and images of the camps at liberation — to show how Himmler waged his deadly war while remaining more or less a normal, attentive dad at home.
After a while, the household anecdotes can grow tiring — Himmler’s love letters are often as dry and circumspect as he seemed to be — and they don’t necessarily reveal much about his psyche, beyond a few moments of doubt, fatigue and indigestion, one which occurs after he witnesses a mass shooting firsthand (and may partially explain why he pushed for more efficient killings in the gas chambers).
More troubling is the director’s choice to add lots of sound effects to the historical record, mixing in gunshots, exploding bombs and other noises when the eeriness of the silent imagery may have been enough. It’s a case of cinematic overkill, though it doesn’t necessarily take away from Lapa’s underlying intent: to demonstrate how a “decent” man like Himmler could preside over the destruction of untold lives.
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