sat 22/06/2024

The Decent One | reviews, news & interviews

The Decent One

The Decent One

Documentary enters the toxic mind of SS Reichsführer Himmler

Like father like daughter: Himmler with Gudrun

Remember the Hitler diaries? Stern and the Sunday Times were so eager for them to be true they went ahead and published even after historian Hugh Trevor Roper had changed his mind about their authenticity. Such was the hunger for stories about Nazis. It’s still there, but Die Welt was on firmer ground when – to accusations of sensationalism – last year it published extracts from the cache of letters, diaries and memos in the hand of Heinrich Himmler.

These were of more certain provenance: they were found in the house of Himmler by US Army troops. Authenticated by the German Federal Archives, they made their circuitous way into the hands of director Vanessa Lapa. Her film The Decent One is a careful attempt to peer inside the head of the SS Reichsführer. It marries extracts from the documents – read by actors – to film and photographs, with ingenious use of sound (by Tomer Eliav) to bring the footage alive: barking dogs, cheering crowds, a chuntering train, thwacks of a truncheon, feet landing in a pre-dug mass grave, rifle shots.

Glimpses of the boy Himmler in pudding bowl haircut and round glasses playing at soldiers (“I lost 10 million,” he reports) make way for the whines of an unpopular student (“People don’t like me. Because I talk too much”) who loathes Jews and homosexuals and craves a purifying war in which he can prove himself. Then, as he vocalises a desire for a Teutonic Messiah to avenge Germany’s humiliation at the Treaty of Versailles, the film alights on the opening page of Mein Kampf and cuts to a marrow-chilling image of Hitler on a boat turning to look directly into the lens.

Himmler’s rise through the Nazi party is recorded in numbered letters, written in a forthright slanting hand to the woman he marries. Marga Himmler’s voice is also heard. “Why are you going to a Hitler rally when you know what he will say?” “Because I organise them.” In due course she is joined by their daughter Gudrun, who writes about toys and ponies and “unspeakable” Russians. From 1938 we also hear from Himmler’s secret mistress, who bore him a child. The birth certificate recorded its paternity as "unknown".

There is little unknown about Himmler’s pivotal part in genocide. The film’s power is in its access to the private workings of psychotic power-mongering, ideological hatred and pious self-pity (“I am not a bloodthirsty person and not someone who takes pleasure in difficult duties”). To encapsulate Himmler’s enormities, Lapa favours the thumping irony. Footage of executions and atrocities is juxtaposed with intimate letters between father and daughter. Of the spoils of war Himmler proclaims that Germans must not enrich themselves personally, then showers his mistress with looted gifts. Frau Himmler frets about delinquent behaviour of their adopted son while the father stomps about Europe persecuting millions with his black-uniformed cadre of pureblood thugs. At 15 the boy joins the SS. “I think he has become nicer,” says his mother.

The title is the biggest irony of all. It derives from Himmler’s talk of “remaining decent in the face of 100 corpses”. Rather than the actor’s voice, this is Himmler himself talking over a photograph of his corpse (to dodge Allied justice he took cyanide). In appearance he may have looked less obviously corrupted by Nazism than the bloated Goering and the reptilian Goebbels, but The Decent One makes for 90 grim minutes inside the toxic mind of a punctilious and fanatical mass murderer.

Among the credits is one for transcription by Katrin Himmler, the great niece who contributed eloquently to the documentary Hitler’s Children. Gudrun Himmler, meanwhile, has devoted her life to Stille Hilfe, an organisation supporting arrested, condemned or fugitive former SS members. She is still alive.

Overleaf: watch the trailer to The Decent One

The film’s power is in its access to the private workings of psychotic power-mongering, ideological hatred and pious self-pity


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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