Sunday, September 28, 2014

Himmler on Himmler: Vanessa Lapa's THE DECENT ONE offers case study in self-delusion

As World War II came to a close and America and the Allies took over Germany, a group of American soldiers entered the home of Nazi Gestapo chief Heinrich Himmler and in their "browsing" discovered hundreds of personal letters, diaries and photos. What, exactly, then happened to all this is unclear. The soldiers by law had to hand over anything and everything they found to the proper authorities. But this group did not. Supposedly the cache found its way to Israel and was hidden in Tel Aviv for decades, only to surface a few years ago when it was sold to the father of the woman, Vanessa Lapa, who has now made a documentary, her first, about these unusual findings.

Ms Lapa, shown at right, has titled her film THE DECENT ONE (Der Anständige), from a comment made by Himmler in one of his letters to his wife: "We can have one desire as to what is said about us: These German officers, these German soldiers -- they were decent." Unfortunately doing the "decent" thing under the Third Reich meant wiping out Jews and homosexuals (whom Himmler manages to mention within the same sentence in another letter), among others like the Romani/gypsies. Ms Lapa has organized her documentary as a kind of history of Himmler (shown above and in some of the photos below) and his life, framed by chapters that lead off with one quote or another from this infa-mous genocidal maniac -- whom Hannah Arendt found to be a stand-in for the banality of evil, a point which this new film would seem to underscore.

What, pray tell, is more banal than the hypocrisy residing in human beings of all sorts? Which we then use self-delusion to cover up. Of course, when we live in a society that is itself hugely self-deluded (as was Nazi Germany, and as is, to a somewhat lesser extent, America today), this is all the easier to accomplish.

In The Decent One, we see little Heinrich as a boy (above), as a young man, as a soldier and family man (below), and then finally as a military leader. Along with this, as a constant and growing counterpoint, Ms Lapa has chosen to use visuals that show -- even as Himmler or his wife are babbling on as though they're "just plain folk" -- what the Germans were actually doing to the Jews at the time. (This "folksiness" alternates with the kind of anti-Semetic blather that could easily be used as a recruiting film for would-be Neo-Nazis.)

This juxtaposition of the verbiage of "decency" against the horrific visual acts of genocide is stark and appalling, all right, but it is used so often and so heavy-handedly that eventually -- except, I expect, for the very young or those untutored in Holocaust history -- it becomes a kind of overkill: uber-obvious and very nearly insulting to the intelligence. (Or maybe I'm just being hypocritical and self-deluding.)

For heavy-duty film-goers who have seen and heard about the Holocaust and the evils of Nazi Germany down the decades since WWII, what is the difference, I wonder, in now hearing/seeing all this in a high-ranking Nazi's own words? Not much, I'm afraid.

There is a certain frisson in realizing that we are hearing the actual words of this man rather than some screenwriter's imagining of what he might have sounded like. But since it is all mostly the expected drivel -- "We're creating a glorious master race!" (see above) -- that spark soon dies.

The self-delusion angle here is so obvious and has been seen in so many other narrative and documentary films that it seems there is little more to mine. I suppose that we can not see and hear too often or too loudly of the horrors the Holocaust brought, but I do wonder if an even more interesting movie might have been made about the details of the journey this cache of papers and photos made from Germany to Israel -- with whom, how, why, when and where.

How much money, dare we ask, did Ms Lapa's dad pay for all this? And exactly what does this treasure trove of "Himmleriana" signify for him? Whatever else it has done, the cache seems to have given a jump-start to Ms Lapa's film-making career. It will be interesting to see what she tackles next.

Meanwhile, The Decent One -- from Kino Lorber and running 94 minutes --has its NYC premiere this coming Wednesday, October 1, at Film Forum for a two-week run. The following Friday, October 10, it opens in L.A. at Laemmle's Music Hall 3, and in Santa Barbara at the Plaza De Oror Twin on October 22. Click here and scroll down to view further playdates.


Anonymous said...

Will this film be going to Chicago?

James van Maanen said...

I just checked the distributor's web site, and no, it doesn't look like anything has been booked for Chicago as yet.

If you click on this link -- -- you can check into this, and maybe request a booking from Kino Lorber.

This movie strikes me as the kind of thing that the Music Box theater in Chicago might book for a brief run.

Anonymous said...


Thank you for checking on that. I do think that it would be valuable to play in Chicago. I heard about this movie and sure am interested in seeing it if at all possible.

James van Maanen said...

You're welcome, Anon, and I hope you get to see it -- in Chicago. If you do, take a few minutes to weigh in on it here. I'd love to know what you think.