The value of The Decent One lies in its most insufferable and obvious intention. Through its presentation of Heinrich Himmler’s personal relationships, his intimate thoughts, and his quotidian concerns, the film compels the audience to empathise with one of the worst mass murderers in the history of the human race. This slaughter was made possible through the concentration camps he oversaw for the systematic destruction of millions of lives. By showing what Himmler did, and how he lived when he wasn’t murdering innocent people, Vanessa Lapa’s documentary dares to give human character to a man to whom it is easier to attribute only inhuman traits.
The distinction between empathy and sympathy is worth underlining. In Will Self‘s novel My Idea of Fun, the narrator, the fictional serial killer Ian Wharton, asks the reader what she thinks the definition of “empathy” is, then what the definition of “sympathy” is, and then that she go and look the words up in the dictionary. He explains: “I think you’ll find that you’ve got them the wrong way round, that what you thought was empathy is really sympathy and vice versa… I’m not going to make big claims about this semantic quirk but I do think it’s worth remarking on, for when two key terms tumble over one another in this fashion you can be sure that something is afoot.”
The terms are slippery, but broadly speaking, empathy may be said to be not just the sharing of someone else’s feelings, but the actual experiencing of those emotions, from the inside out, so to speak. For Wharton, the slight distinction signalled a troubling feature of his relation to his victims and of his own psychology. For the audience of The Decent One, the notion that we are able to empathise with Himmler, that we may experience what he did for portions of his life, is troubling.
After the war, American soldiers seized a hoard of Himmler’s personal correspondence, memos, and journals from his family home. The Decent One uses actors to voice these documents to present a chronologically ordered portrait of Himmler from childhood to the final days of the war. The narrations are accompanied by archival footage, sometimes in complement to the content of the documents, sometimes in juxtaposition. For example, a journal entry about Himmler’s experience at his university fraternity is accompanied by scenes of young men from that period toasting and carousing.
On the other hand, one particular letter home to his wife Marga is illustrated with somewhat contrasting material. The letter reads: “My Wonderful Mommy! The trip to the Baltic States was very interesting. I also think it is good that our Püppi doesn’t fully grasp the war, but you should tell her about it.” Püppi was the couple’s pet name for their daughter Gudrun. It means “doll”. As the letter is read aloud we are shown footage of Nazi officers lining up a group of townsfolk against a wall and executing them. “I sent a package today for Püppi our sweetheart.” A soldier inspects the group of fallen bodies before another steps forward and fires a pistol into a survivor.
The loving and concerned tone elicited by the use of pet names suggests that the author could be any father away on a business trip. In this case, the nature of that business which is glossed by the formality and propriety of the letter’s language is revealed by the archival footage. What was “interesting” to Himmler about the Baltic States involved annihilation and colonisation in the event of a German victory. This is the device the documentary employs. We empathise with the feelings of love conveyed by author with his choice of words; they are simple, common, and easy for any viewer to understand. Then the archival footage shocks us back to the horrifying historical reality that the internal life of the Himmler family was able to occlude.
The formulation of image and language just described is repeated throughout the film. Himmler loves his wife (and his mistress) and dotes on his dear daughter. In return, Püppi is as devoted a child as it is possible to imagine. On occasion, particularly the early journals and love letters between Marga and Himmler, there are anti-Semitic comments, but they are not the norm. We are left in no doubt that Himmler was a “true believer” in the Nazi cause; but far from a torrent of hate, the lasting impression created by these documents is of a “normal” family, the cumulative effect of which is somewhat saccharine. While initially this excessive sweetness is tiresome, on reflection it is disturbing.
Hannah Arendt’s expression “the banality of evil” could not be more relevant. Himmler may or may not be different from Arendt’s subject Adolf Eichmann in terms of his motivations and worldview, but the phrase is certainly a rich heuristic tool with which to consider Himmler. While, as stated, it’s clear that Himmler was an ideological Nazi, the documentation in The Decent One also suggests that he was someone who never had to rationalise his actions. So deeply ingrained were his prejudices that there was no need for logic or reasoning when it came to “the Jewish question”. The metaphysical had become natural, his hatred ordinary and prosaic to him and those close to him.
The Decent One‘s presentation of the Himmler archive is gripping. As noted, the choice of archive footage is well considered. At times, sound effects are added to the silent footage, but their inclusion is generally well reasoned and unobtrusive. As a different kind of document of the Holocaust it is an important film; as an intimate study of evil, it is extraordinary.