In Interview: Vanessa Lapa, Director of The Decent One

by Chris Milton on 02/04/2015

The Decent One, which won the best Israeli Documentary award at last summer’s Jerusalem Film Festival, is a portrait of Heinrich Himmler from his youth to shortly before his death, using only photographs and archival footage and excerpts read out from diaries, letters, memoranda and diktats. New Empress spoke to its director, Vanessa Lapa.

NE: Were there any surprises for you in any of the diaries, letters and other materials you looked at whilst researching the film?

VL: Yes, lots. Not on a historical level, but on a human and emotional level. One realised again and again just how perverted Himmler was. I didn’t know much about him apart from what I knew from history books. Right up until the end, I was still being struck by how twisted and perverted he was.

NE: Was it a contrast between the domestic personal writings and the historical facts that shocked you, or did you find the content of the personal writings disturbing as well?

VL: I don’t think we have a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde character here. I didn’t see an especially loving husband or father or lover. I saw a strict, violent man in the home. Of course, in his public life it was a different kind of violence, but constant demeaning, educating and punishing, depriving a child of love because it did something bad to the extent of instructing its mother not to sign letters ‘Mother’ anymore, is in my eyes violence. Not physical, murderous violence, but still violence. To tell your wife on your wedding night that you love her very much, but that there is something you love more – in this case National Socialism – is not very romantic, to say the least. What shocked me was the coherent line between the public and the private man.

NE: These attitudes, though, the obsession with harshness, discipline, militarism and nationalism, were very much of the Germany of that time though, weren’t they?

VL: Himmler made choices. Most of us don’t and won’t make similar decisions. The fact that he was what he was, like many – militaristic, strict, cold, and so on – doesn’t mean that everyone could make the same leap to do what he did. However, in certain geopolitical and socioeconomic situations characters like this can be formed and could act as Himmler acted.

NE: Do you think that Himmler was mentally ill?

VL: No, I’m positive that he was not. But I’m sure that it’s debatable. We worked with a psychiatrist who analysed the contents of the letters and diaries. His conclusion was that Himmler was not mad. I’m sure there are other psychiatrists who may see signs of mental illness in Himmler’s personality. But as far as I’m concerned I don’t believe that that he was mad. I believe that as citizens we need to be constantly aware and attentive so that we can avoid such situations and such characters. And of course, Himmler didn’t act alone or in a vacuum, that period produced many monsters. But we can avoid the conditions that created them.

NE: One thing that strikes me about Himmler is that he was very credulous and of obviously limited intelligence. He adhered to some silly mystical beliefs, as well as nonsensical racial and biological ideas. Do you think his credulity and dull-wittedness played a part in his cruel behaviour and that generally these two things can lead to the committing of acts that we label ‘evil’?

VL: I totally agree with how you characterised Himmler. This is what is so frightening, that at the end of the day he was a dull, mediocre, not especially intelligent, even a stupid and pathetic man. Yet, he was able to mastermind such horror, achieve a high political position and change the course of history.

NE: Did the ironies produced by the juxtaposition of word and image take a lot of work and research, or did this fall into place quite easily?

VL: That’s an interesting question. On the one hand the number of texts was huge, so it was quite difficult to build a developing, well-told story. It was difficult partly because these writings were not written for publication and are very repetitive and sometimes very boring. On the other hand, there is a lot of self-revelation through stories and anecdotes in the letters. There were a lot of revealing side stories relating to homosexuality for instance, and the choice of using some of them was a narrative choice. The biggest challenge was to build a story that was not boring.

NE: Were you at any point charmed by his daughter Gudrun’s writings, her being a daughter and woman, like you. Or did you feel distaste and hostility towards her, too?

VL: No, I wasn’t charmed by her. I feel the same way towards her as her father because of the choices she made and because today she still follows his. She is a Nazi and I despise what she is today. As for her as a child, however, she was a normal admiring daughter in love with her father, which I was too, and which is healthy. I had no issues with her as a child, but with her parents and the way they corrupted her. She was her father’s victim. I tried to reach out to her from the beginning, and to obtain an interview or meeting, but she never wanted to talk to me. I would still be interested in meeting her.

NE: What would you ideally like the viewer to take from the film?

VL: Well, first, ideally of having been on a cinematic journey or experience. I personally like to feel that a movie has taken me on a journey, and that I’m not just a passive viewer looking passively at someone else’s story, one that I will forget in a second. Secondly, to have made them reflect, and to bear in mind what they have seen and heard, and that this will help them to take some responsibility as citizens.

The Decent One is released theatrically & on Curzon Home Cinema on April 3rd.


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