Monsters come in various forms. Those found in fictional literature or film can be chilling enough but, inevitably, it is the real life monsters that strike the most fear in our hearts. People routinely joke about the fact that whenever a heinous crime is committed, those who knew the perpetrator seem to mouth the same cliches such as "He was a quiet man" or "He was a good family man". Yet there is a disturbing truth to this generalization. Some of the worst people in history have been rather nondescript types who would never stand out in a crowd. Such a man who was destined for infamy was Heinrich Himmler, whose homely personal appearance bordered on the comic. He has been described as someone who looked like a character from a Marx Brothers movie. Yet there was nothing the slightest bit amusing about Himmler, as the new documentary The Decent One makes painfully clear. Directed by Vanessa Lapa, the movie has just been brought to DVD by Kino Lorber. Himmler's life and crimes have proven to be well-worn territory for any number of previous documentaries but The Decent One is unique in that it tells his story entirely from his own perspective, along with that of his wife Marga. This was made possible by the discovery of an archive of personal letters between the couple that were looted from Himmler's home by American soldiers who occupied the place at the end of the war. Somehow the stash of letters and diaries ended up in a historic archive in Tel Aviv where Lapa and her researchers were allowed access to them. They revealed a treasure trove of photos and correspondence that provide fascinating insights into the lives of one of the Third Reich's most notorious war criminals. Virtually the entire film is told through narration of the letters between Himmler and Marga, although the film does begin with an all-too brief vintage interview with Marga that appears to be a debriefing by Allied intelligence officers at the end of the war. There are some other comments made from letters written by the Himmlers' daughter Gudrun, who grew up during the war years.
The film begins with comments from young Himmler's diary. As a teenager, he was among the many disaffected Germans who resented their nation's capitulation to the Treaty of Versailles in the wake of Germanys that saw Germany's defeat in WWI. The terms of the treaty were so severe that they caused widespread economic decline in Germany, which was made a scapegoat by bearing the entire responsibility for a war that was so complicated and unnecessary that scholars are still debating its causes today. From these early days, Himmler viewed himself as an outsider. "People don't seem to like me", he writes more than once in his diary. A key inspiration in his life was reading Adolf Hitler's manifesto, Mein Kampf, which called for a revolution in Germany against the flawed but democratic Weimar Republic. Himmler was an early member of Hitler's National Socialist Party, which espoused a far-right political philosophy that was nativist in tone and intolerant in practice. Himmler had always harbored anti-Semitic prejudices and Hitler's ranting political speeches only galvanized others with similar feelings. Around this time Himmler fell in love with Marga, a woman eight years his senior. The two married in 1924 just as Himmler's stock was rising in the Nazi party. Before long, he would be given increasing responsibilities and would emerge as one of Hitler's most trusted and reliable confidants. The film humanizes Himmler through the correspondence with Marga, from their dating period through their marriage. The couple engages in some overtly sexual banter that seems to imply that to some degree an S&M element may have been present in this aspect of their relationship. (They both bizarrely refer to lovemaking as "revenge" on each other and imply that Himmler has been naughty and should be punished.) Following the birth of the couple's daughter Gudrun, Himmler was distressed to learn that Marga could not bear him any other children. As a key element of Nazi philosophy was that couples should have as many children as possible, the Himmler's adopt a young son, Gehbard. The correspondence makes clear that the couple had little enthusiasm for the lad and were frustrated by what they believe is his errant behavior. At one point, Himmler advises Marga to refrain from signing her letters to Gehbard, who was in boarding school, as "Mother". The film follows the Nazi party's rise to political power. Although Hitler is only seen occasionally in photos and newsreel clips, his presence dominates much of the Himmler's personal life. Himmler is there for "the boss", as he refers to him, day and night and his absence from home ultimately leaves Marga frustrated, though Himmler is dutiful in writing letters and sending presents.
The turning point comes with Hitler's disastrous decision to betray his ally Stalin and launch the massive invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, a strategy that achieves remarkable success initially but which would lead to disastrous consequences in the long run. It represents the first time that Marga addresses the fact that Germany may be in real peril, despite her husband's increasingly meaningless platitudes that Hitler can never be defeated. The Allied invasion of Normandy three years later wreaks havoc on the nation. In correspondence written by the astute Gudrun, the child is distressed that Germany is now without any allies and is on its own. Throughout the entire war, Himmler is only a fleeting presence at home but Gudrun clearly adores him even as Gebhard is never fully accepted as his son. In his duties as right hand man to Hitler, Himmler thrives on his new responsibilities to deal with indigenous populations in conquered countries. He starts off by rounding up suspected homosexuals and incarcerating them in concentration camps with orders to ensure that all are shot while "trying to escape". He organizes death squads to exterminate entire villages in conquered Soviet territory. The most ambitious plan, however, is the "Final Solution" to "the Jewish problem". Himmler enthusiastically oversees the implementation of widespread genocide on a scale that is still hard to fathom. During this time, he continues to extol the virtues of the average Nazi, who he maintains has remained "decent" despite the unsavory tasks they must perform in order to keep the Germanic population free of "human animals". Indeed, Himmler seems to never stop bragging about his regard for ethical behavior despite all evidence to the contrary. He insists that members of the Master Race remain pure in every way- even as he engages in a extra-marital affair that sees him impregnate his mistress. He condones confiscating all the property and wealth of doomed Jews but warns that no German can ever personally benefit from this booty- even as he sends some of it home as gifts to his family.
"The Decent One" is an intriguing experience precisely because it reiterates what we already know: some of the most demonic people on the planet can hide behind the guise of being rational, compassionate individuals. Since the film is restricted to telling Himmler's story only through his own words, it does not serve (or attempt to serve) as a chronological diary of the German experience in WWII. Some key events are only glossed over in the interest of time while others are ignored altogether. (It would be interesting to know what Himmler thought of the July 1944 assassination attempt on Hitler by his own generals.) The film ends with a scene of Himmler dead on the floor with a British sentry standing over him. Placards at the end of the movie inform the viewer that he had been captured two days previously but had escaped trial by taking a cyanide capsule. We are also advised that his wife Marga died in 1967. His son remained haunted by his fractured relationship with his father and died only a few years ago. His daughter is still alive and donates to an organization that defends convicted Nazi war criminals. Apparently time and history has taught her nothing.
The film and its director have been criticized in some quarters for utilizing the device of having the entire story told through the words of the subjects themselves. The knock against Lapa is that this fails to provide context to the events that are unfolding on screen. I feel these critics miss the point. The most intriguing aspect of the movie is precisely that there are no distractions between the words of Himmler and his family members. It offers the kind of perspective that a standard format would deny the viewer. The Kino Lorber release features some interesting extras. They include an introduction by esteemed documentary maker Errol Morris, who also discusses the film in a Q&A session at Brandeis University. There are also some compelling featurettes that show researchers looking through the files containing Himmler's correspondence and photos. There are visits to relatives of Himmler, who are not in sympathy with him in any way and who discuss the negative connotations that the surname still evokes today. An original trailer is also included.
"The Decent One" should be seen by everyone who believes the old adage that those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it.