The Decent One operates under a discursive premise so presumptuous and flimsy that its attempted function as an experiential documentary proffers little more than a book-on-tape-on-film. Director Vanessa Lapa has sifted through hundreds of pages of diary entries and letters belonging to Gestapo general Heinrich Himmler, whose role as overseer of the Nazi concentration camps led to the extermination of nearly six million Jews. Himmler, however, saw himself as something of a heroic figure, at once performing systematically violent, nationalist duties while consistently keeping his family in the forefront of his mind. Utilizing archival film shot inside the camps and on the periphery of NSDAP operations, Lapa stitches the footage together to assemble an approximate chronology, while Himmler’s diary entries are narrated in voiceover by actors. Lapa never deviates from this approach throughout, with the same rhythmic cadence and formal approach to historical reenactment. These devices comprehensively fail Lapa, however, since the film’s ultimate effect is a tip-toeing around her own culpability as curator, stepping aside and allowing the footage and narration to speak, it would appear, autonomously.
Yet there’s nothing autonomous about Lapa’s deeply problematic obfuscation of confronting the juxtaposition between Himmler speaking of himself and his family in a loving, almost sentimental manner, while he lorded over the operations of the concentration camps. Lapa appears to view these aesthetic choices as an equation, whereby the simple, almost binary operations of a narration that humanizes Himmler counters the footage that irrefutably condemns a man fully capable of dissociating his own culpability in genocide. Moreover, Margarete Himmler is a figure the documentary is simply interested in marginalizing to the role of affectionate onlooker. Lapa opens the film with Margarete’s testimony, given shortly after her husband’s suicide, in which she explains the location of her husband’s diaries and letters—kept in a safe inside their Gmund home. However, a latter portion of that same testimony is given much later in the film, as Margarete actively denies her knowledge in any of her husband’s Gestapo activities. Rather than foregrounding and interrogating Margarete’s views from the onset, Lapa reserves Margarete’s thoroughly diligent and reverent feelings for her husband as a late trump card, offering the same calculated, surface-level diagnosis of cognitive dissonance that’s ascribed to Heinrich throughout.
The Decent One may seek to do for Himmler what Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall did for Hitler, but that would assume that Hirschbiegel merely sought a similar kind of contrasting dialectic. That’s not the case at all, as Hirschbiegel’s film is a carefully textured examination of the nature of personified power, which has resonance beyond merely Nazi regimes and, by extension, implicates the desires of endemic to nationalist foreign policy as a ubiquitous affliction amongst Western nations. Lapa couldn’t possibly achieve such lofty suggestions given her documentary’s rigid commitment to authorial detachedness, if only because that detachedness is merely masked behind the ill-advised notion that her documentary could possibly occupy a truly objective space. Even the moments when Himmler’s diary entries slip into outright misogyny, racism, and homophobia, they’re immediately countered by a statement that laments how far removed from his family the death camps have taken him, with Lapa once again mistaking authorial manipulation for inherent complexity. Regardless of whether or not these words were actually written by Himmler, Lapa shirks all ethical responsibility by allowing them to go uncontextualized within the film, that finally suggests an outrageous desire to simultaneously sum up and reduce the complexities of one’s man’s thoroughly homicidal pathology to an “everyone is human” pustule.