Up Close and Personal: Heinrich Himmler

The documentary 'The Decent One' once again brings up for debate the issue of using archival material and the difficulties in perpetuating the memory of the Third Reich and the Holocaust.

Uri Klein
Uri Klein
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From Vanessa Lapa’s documentary  “The Decent One" on Heinrich Himmler.
From Vanessa Lapa’s documentary “The Decent One" on Heinrich Himmler. Credit: REALWORKS LTD.
Uri Klein
Uri Klein

Vanessa Lapa’s documentary film “The Decent One,” currently being screened in Israel, once again brings up for debate the issue of using archival material and the difficulties in perpetuating the memory of the Third Reich and the Holocaust. The historical background of the film begins with May 6, 1945, when troops of the U.S. Army took control of the home of Heinrich Himmler and confiscated a collection of diaries, letters, photographs and other material that belonged to his family, including a cookbook written by his wife Margarete. Contrary to orders, they did not hand the material over to the government.

Was it negligence? Was it the result of postwar chaos, or a feeling that this family material had no importance? The material’s existence was no secret. As early as 1982, Israeli television critic Hedda Boshes wrote about it in Haaretz. On January 25, 2014, following the publication of some of the material in the German newspaper Die Welt, Ofer Aderet published an article in Haaretz describing the material’s journey until it reached the Belgian diamond dealer Dave Lapa, father of Vanessa Lapa, who based her film on it.

The film does not use narration or interviews. Lapa bases it on two sources only: a soundtrack containing excerpts, read by actors, of the correspondence between Himmler and his wife; sections of the diaries written by his daughter, Gudrun; letters written to him by his mistress, who had two children by him; and photographs that were found in the Himmler home, together with photographs from other sources and archival material.

The link between sound and image is a problem. The first documentary film to record the memory of the Holocaust for posterity, “Night and Fog” (Alain Resnais, 1955), was composed entirely of archival material, with narration written by Jean Cayrol. Most of the documentary films commemorating the Holocaust since then have combined archival material with interviews, even when they sought to deal with the validity and significance of the archival excerpts (Yael Hersonski’s 2010 film, “A Film Unfinished,” being the most memorable example). Claude Lanzmann presented the total opposite in his 1985 film “Shoah,” which had no archival material at all. I will not emphasize here, once more, the effectiveness and great significance of Lanzmann’s choice, which extended to his next films, and from which he departed for the first time in his latest one, “The Last of the Unjust” (2013), which is now coming out in Israel on DVD for those who missed this important work.

The question of whether to use archival material has to do with the connection between cinema and the work of the memory it records. It also touches on the question of the exploitation of that memory and the atrocity it contains. While Lapa’s film is free of such exploitation, her use of photographs and archival material, unique and interesting as most of it is, creates a different problem. The excerpts read aloud on the soundtrack fascinated me, mainly those that memorialized Himmler and the members of his family, but I was often torn between those two sources. There were moments when I was tempted to close my eyes to concentrate on the text being read, and at times the images distracted me from the text. A few hours after I watched the film, I noticed several excerpts of texts and some images in my memory of it wandering about, colliding with one another without combining into a unified creative whole.

In many parts of the film, Lapa attempts to create a dialectic between sound and image. These are the most effective parts of the film from a formal artistic perspective. But much of the time, the visuals are an illustration of the text that is read aloud on the soundtrack. This illustration does not deepen the film; rather, it seems like an unavoidable solution that limits it. This problem in form is not limited exclusively to films that deal with the memory of the Holocaust. It is also present in documentary films whose point of departure is text that already exists.

The problems I found in Lapa’s film do not detract from the interest it aroused in me. Much of its power stems from its effort to document in the chilling day-to-day spirit that typifies the texts read aloud on the soundtrack, even when these texts have to do with the routine of Himmler’s job as head of the SS, his attitude and that of his wife toward Jews, and even his daughter’s excitement over a visit to Dachau. This spirit of the day-to-day routine, which contrasts so sharply with the sentimentality that drips from the letters of Himmler and his wife, is a better representation of Himmler’s monstrous nature than any documentary image that deals exclusively with his actions.

When we talk about this film, we should avoid the phrase coined by Hannah Arendt, “the banality of evil,” because there is nothing banal about the image that Lapa’s film creates, and the feeling that guides the film is that Lapa does not believe in this banality. By its artistic choices, as problematic as I have indicated they are, her film is saved from this cliche, and that is where much of its validity and value originate.

It seems that Lapa is not bothered by the question of how much her film contributes to the debate over the cinema’s treatment of the memory of the Holocaust, or changes it. It has a simplicity and directness which recognize that its importance stems from its very existence as another film, another testimony. It does not reveal anything we did not know, nor does it pretend to explain what cannot be explained. From certain vantage points, its avoidance of the attempt to reveal something new or explain the atrocity is just as effective as the strategy Lanzmann used in his films, even if the result is completely different stylistically and is less forceful. Lapa’s film works in the rift between the day-to-day, the personal and the historical, and the connection between fragments of all of them creates the film and shapes its memory within the larger, comprehensive memory into which it fits.

From Vanessa Lapa’s documentary “The Decent One" on Heinrich Himmler. Credit: Realworks LTD.
From Vanessa Lapa’s documentary “The Decent One" on Heinrich Himmler. Credit: Realworks LTD.

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