People Will Speak of This a Thousand Years Hence
Sailing an unusual tack in the flood of Holocaust films, The Decent One/Der Anständige centers, not on chilling facts and figures or post-war trials or traumas, but on the oft-asked never-answered question of the evil that ordinary men are capable of. Do not confuse this with Hannah Arendt’s banal face of evil; here, rather, the thread is the double or more nature of individuals (and cultures), their self-illusions divorced from their atrocities. Dedicating the ninety-six minutes to “my grandparents, survivors,” Belgian Israel-based Vanessa Lapa aims at a “post-documentary” mix of fact and actors’ voices’ fiction, allowing viewers to “think [and] feel with” what flashes before their eyes as they also hear it.
It is unfortunate that the consequent disconnect shock between loving (if occasionally hypocritical) words and brutal images will be muted by the necessity to read, i.e., “see,” the subtitles from German.
Only briefly is the opening concerned with the finding of a trove of papers, letters, photos and memorabilia then illegally taken from Heinrich Himmler’s house in Gmund in 1945, to lie re-hidden in Tel Aviv until purchased years later by Lapa’s father. To voiceover-readings from documents, diaries and correspondence, restored rare b&w historical footage is at times still so disturbing as to elicit gasps and averted faces.
“Heini’s” middle-class Catholic boyhood is presented against the “death sentence” of the Treaty of Versailles, humiliated resentful Germany’s growing nationalism, and his feelings of helplessness and loneliness. Wisely, no omniscient narrator psychoanalyzes the young Municher’s adherence to “Uncle” Hitler from January 1923 on. Nor is there authorial comment on his wooing of Margarete “Marga” Boden, their private, suggestively S/M sexual references in numbered letters, and his emphasis on family, children and Aryan blood purity in the face of Twenties decadence.
To footage of Himmler alongside the Führer and a few printed titles, his rapid rise is traced, from police chief of Bavaria to various ministries to head of the Gestapo and black-uniformed Schutzstaffel, the quarter-million SS. Away much of the Thirties when the Party rose to dictatorial power and then during the war, he corresponded often in a seemingly loving relationship with “Mommy” Marga, their daughter Gudrun “Püppi” and difficult adopted son Gerhard.
Occasional financial and legal irregularities during the Russian campaign are not out of the ordinary, though a long extramarital affair and illegitimate daughter do come as a surprise. Nor, in light of time and place, do his and his wife’s anti-Semitic, homophobic and xenophobic sentiments strike one as uncharacteristically fanatical. What does come across as monstrous, impossibly incongruous, inconceivable, is how Himmler took as a matter of course what Marga later denied all knowledge of, that is, his pivotal rôle in imagining and overseeing construction and management of the concentration and death camps and orchestrating the mass murder of millions that followed.
Cyanide-capsule suicide prevented the man’s ever coming to trial. What here appears his total disassociation between his private life and his public activities for Nation and Leader, cannot be fathomed. Unto death and beyond, he clung to the image of himself and his fellow criminals against humanity as what he called “decent, courageous and kind-hearted” human beings.
(Released by Kino Lorber; not rated by MPAA.)