It may seem insensitive, if not callously cynical, to use the term “novelty value” when appraising a documentary dealing with the Holocaust. But that’s precisely what distinguishes Vanessa Lapa’s “The Decent One” from countless previous nonfiction features that have detailed the darkest horror of the 20th century. Drawing from correspondence and documents discovered during the immediate aftermath of WWII in the home of SS commander Heinrich Himmler, the chief architect of the Final Solution, Lapa more or less allows the Nazi leader to provide a firsthand, self-serving account of his life and crimes. The result is a film that doubtless will intrigue a diverse cross-section of academics, historians and history buffs, despite some of Lapa’s questionable attempts to enhance the dramatic impact of her narrative.
“The Decent One” is most effective when it sticks to a simple game plan: As unseen actors read from an unusually rich and detailed accumulation of source material — everything from diaries and love letters to official reports on mass executions — Lapa skillfully illustrates (and occasionally contradicts) the interlocking excerpts with exceptionally well-preserved archival footage. The director earns points for resisting the temptation to rely on “dramatic re-creations,” but betrays a heavy hand whenever she adds sound effects to silent footage.
On a basic level, “The Decent One” is a biographical documentary. Lapa traces the roots of Himmler’s anti-Semitism to his days at college, a period when the future Nazi zealot routinely discussed “the Jewish question” with fraternity brothers, and felt simultaneously attracted and repelled by “slutty but stunning Jewish girls” he encountered in taverns and elsewhere. Himmler later courted and eventually married Margarete, a woman seven years his senior, who lovingly nicknamed him “Heinie,” swapped playfully flirtatious letters with him, and complained only whenever a “naughty” movement — National Socialism — kept them apart.
Evidently, truth really can be stranger, and more darkly comical, than fiction. At one point, Marga (as Himmler calls her) writes: “Why are you going to a Hitler rally when you know what he will say?” Himmler patiently replies: “I must go to Hitler rallies, because I organize them and am jointly responsible for them.” Later, he pointedly reminds her: “I can’t always be as ‘good’ as you want me to be.”
Even as Marga insists she knows “so little about politics,” despite her own casual anti-Semitism, Himmler continues his methodical evildoing as one of Hitler’s most enthusiastic lackeys. He writes of visiting the first concentration camp in Dachau, “the new home for 5,000 Communist and Social Democrat nuisances,” and remains ever receptive to suggestions for more efficient ways to eliminate Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and other undesirables on a massive scale.
But at the same time, Lapa underscores, Himmler evinces a seemingly inhuman ability to compartmentalize, viewing himself as a loyal and patriotic German intent on purifying the citizenry of his beloved Deutschland, and expressing sympathy for Nazi commanders charged with murdering millions. During a sequence eerily reminiscent of a scene in Hans-Juergen Syberberg’s epic “Our Hitler” (1977), the audience “hears” Himmler worrying about the sensitivities of his concentration-camp operators, noting that, naturally, they might be upset by the bloody details of their duties because they are, after all, good Germans. (He suggests occasional hearty-partying as a way for camp personnel to boost morale and ameliorate traumas.)
Late in the war, Himmler appears to willfully ignore the unmistakable signs of an impending German defeat. (“Despite all the work,” he writes to Marga, “I am doing fine and sleeping well.”) He remains so focused on the Final Solution that he requests Albert Speer to redirect building material to Auschwitz, so he can expand the death camp. And he continues to think of Speer and his other partners in crimes against humanity as good and decent men. Of course, Himmler chose not to defend his actions to any postwar tribunal; he committed suicide by swallowing a cyanide capsule while detained by British army interrogators in 1945.
It can be argued that “The Decent One” doesn’t add much to what we already know about the day-to-day details of the Nazi death machine. But it commands interest, provokes thought and offers insight by fashioning an up-close and personal portrait of the man largely responsible for designing and operating that monstrous machine, and by illuminating the motivations and rationalizations that could not have been his alone.