Not only were many “ordinary” Nazis doting husbands and fathers, blessed with a remarkable ability to compartmentalize their lives. So, too, was their head honcho, as a new documentary about the life of Heinrich Himmler reveals.
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As portrayed in “The Decent One,” the commander of the SS was capable of fretting over what Christmas gifts to send his darling daughter while also planning and executing the annihilation of European Jewry. The 96-minute film, an Israeli-Austrian coproduction that won the award for best Israeli full-length documentary at this year’s Jerusalem Film Festival, is slated to open in theaters on September 4.
“The Decent One” (“Der Anständige”) was produced and directed by Vanessa Lapa, an Israeli who was born in Belgium. The movie, whose world premiere was at the Berlin Film Festival in February, makes use of a hitherto unknown collection of hundreds of letters, diaries and family photos, to profile one of the most notorious mass murderers of all times. The title was inspired by one such letter, sent by Himmler to his daughter Gudrun in1941, in which he wrote: “In life, a person must always be decent, brave and good.”
The collection, discovered by American soldiers during a raid of Himmler’s home after the war, was eventually obtained by an Israeli artist, who hid it under a bed in his Tel Aviv apartment for 40 years, unbeknownst to the rest of the world. Hearing rumors about the collection, Lapa acquired it in 2006, before the artist died, and spent the next seven years working on the film. Among her consultants on the project was Katrin Himmler, the granddaughter of Heinrich’s younger brother Ernest, who had already written a book about the family. How Chaim Rosenthal, the Israeli artist, got his hands on the collection remains a mystery, Lapa told Haaretz.
The collection includes letters between Himmler and his wife Margarete (Marga), their daughter Gudrun’s personal diary, Marga’s personal diary, photos taken by members of the Himmler family and Marga’s personal recipe book, with her husband’s favorite dishes. With the family photos and archival footage serving as background visuals, the exchanges of letters and diary entries, read by various narrators, form the script.
Beyond letting his family know that he is working hard and sleeping well, Himmler reveals little of what he is up to in his wartime correspondences, which he signs with his nickname “Heini.” The often-mundane accounts of daily life revealed in the letter exchanges are juxtaposed, to great effect, with scenes of Himmler’s subordinates executing his brutal orders.
Only in one exchange with his wife are signs of the cold, cruel man who oversaw the Nazi death machine revealed. That is when Marga consults with him about how to address their adopted son’s disciplinary problems. Himmler recommends that she write the child a letter but refrain from signing it “Mother.”
In another indication of his well-known obsession with order, Himmler asks Marga, long before they wed, to begin numbering their letters.
The film makes public for the first time a collection of sentimental letters written by Himmler to his young mistress Hedwig, who bore him a child during the war. In these letters, too, Adolf Hitler’s top henchman comes across as loving and caring.
“The Decent One” spans the period of Himmler’s life, from his birth in October 1900 to Roman Catholic parents, to his suicide in May 1945, a few days after he was captured by British troops. For viewers hoping to understand the roots of his ferocious anti-Semitism, the film provides little insight. Nor does it explain much about how he rose through the ranks of the Nazi Party to become Hitler’s close confidante. A letter from before the war contains a rare reference to what would eventually become his chief obsession: the Jews. In it, he admits to being engaged by a young Jewish woman he met at a club frequented by Jews and notes that she seemed very “not Jewish.”
The film opens and ends with scenes in which an American investigator asks Marga Himmler what she knew of her husband’s involvement in the “Final Solution.” Nothing, she says. Not even about the extermination camps he built? No, she responds. Didn’t she think to ask? No, yet again.
Lest anyone draw the wrong conclusion, Marga Himmler, who was seven years older than her husband, was no great Judeophile. And judging from some of her diary entries, she probably would have taken pride in her husband’s endeavors, had she been fully apprised of them (assuming she genuinely was not).
So, too, little Gudren, whose letters to her “pappy” during the war express intense concern for his well-being and safety, even though her mother took great efforts, as she reports in her diary, to shield her daughter from any information about the war that might upset her. After the war, as the film reveals, the apple didn’t fall far: Himmler’s daughter ended up dedicating her life to an organization that defended Nazi war criminals.