It is easy to be fascinated by a Nazi movie. It is easy to talk about a Nazi profile as an analysis of evil. But at this point, with already such an exhaustive film history (Schindler’s List, Sophie’s Choice, Shoah coming in at just over 10 hours), it is not so easy to say something that hasn't already been said about the Holocaust. The Decent One by director Vanessa Lapa, is a documentary comprised entirely of WWII archival footage and voice overs that read through a newly discovered collection of letters between Nazi Gestapo Chief Heinrich Himmler and his loved ones. It is a beautiful, complex, and striking portrait of a wicked man.
An especially difficult moment is when Himmler, in a letter, instructs a lower ranking officer to sterilize the strongest women in a camp so that they may work, but notes that they should not be aware of the procedure. "Tell them it's part of the general exam," he says. These letters are contrasted with those written to his wife and daughter about love, Christmas presents, and his desire to be thought of as decent.
It is exactly this contrast which makes the film so gripping and why it is grabbing the attention of critics. The Decent One is being billed as a “fascinating case study” casting a “piercing light on the human capacity for self-delusion.” Perhaps it is not wise to enter a movie house with such high expectations, for indeed, they were not met. Although this film was intriguing and undoubtedly beautiful, it was by no means revolutionary. Horrific crimes in the name of political, religious and personal beliefs are well established in history. And the criminals who commit those crimes often have wives, husbands, kids, grandparents, even pets.
Unfortunately, the capacity of committing mass murder, and being absolutely charming are not mutually exclusive, as much as we would like to believe. As a culture, we are obsessed by this apparent paradox. We feel personally betrayed when a murderer is handsome. We are shocked that a gunman wrote poetry and loved his high school sweetheart. Truman Capote's In Cold Blood sold millions of copies based on this concept; a sympathetic killer. And it is fascinating, but it is something that we have known about the Nazis for a long time: they were humans carrying out inhumane actions.
So for that reason, I was disappointed by The Decent One. Instead of a "fascinating case study," I saw a portrait of a man who believed himself to be truly good, despite extinguishing the lives of hundreds daily. The archival footage shows a happy man in uniform, directing officers, making plans. Intercut with this footage is an interview from the same time period with Himmler's wife, Margarete. She is a devoted and caring. The only information given about their living daughter is this: "Gudrun Himmler married and had two children. She lives with her husband in Munich. For decades, she has been a prominent figure in 'Silent Aid,' an organization that offers financial and legal support to convicted Nazi war criminals." Although an interesting watch, this trip to the movies will not alter any conceptions.