In Review: The Decent One

by Chris Milton on 01/04/2015


It is arguable that Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, and chief architect of the Holocaust, was history’s worst mass murderer. The Decent One is a bio-documentary of Himmler, told through excerpts, read out by actors, from his diaries, letters between him and his wife Margarete (and later his mistress, Hedwige), his daughter Gudrun’s letters and diaries, and Himmler’s orders and speeches. These cover the period 1900-1945, before Himmler, captured by the Allies, committed suicide by biting on a cyanide pill, and are spoken over imagery made up of photographs and archival footage from documentaries, early features and amateur films.

The film is compelling and sobering, and one is reluctantly riveted by it. There is no additional external narration, interpretation or commentary, apart from a few intertitled dates put to major historical turning points, and director Vanessa Lapa lets the juxtaposition and contrast of word and image speak for themselves. This complete lack of explanation, commentary or interpretation, of any stabs at enlightenment, with Himmler’s voice left unchallenged to blithely speak the unspeakable, some may find problematic. These juxtapositions do result in the very darkest of ironies, and Lapa has been unfairly accused of being somewhat heavy-handed and manipulative at points in this regard.

The mundanity of Himmler’s (numbered!) letters to his wife, their air of being dutifully and conventionally affectionate hint at the potential evil of banality, something possibly more disquieting than its well known vice versa. Interspersed with these domestic communications are orders, pronouncements and excerpts from Himmler’s speeches about mass murder on an industrial scale of a callousness and indifference to human life and suffering that will forever challenge our comprehension and humanism. The effect of this is to make the fond, trivial, innocent seeming writings even more chilling than the ostensibly Nazi writings by Himmler.

Ultimately, The Decent One explains nothing, nor do I believe was it intended to. In fact, it deepens the enigma of evil and renders Himmler even more inscrutable. The film is an important addition to the literature and film of the Holocaust, any detailed account of which will prove to be formative, at whatever age one comes to it, and an intelligent and responsible attempt to throw some light on the psyche of its most coldly bestial protagonist.

Chris has awarded The Decent One four Torches of Truth 

4 torches

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