Here's the question I could never get out of my mind while seeing The Decent One, Vanessa Lapa's scrupulously researched and impeccably assembled montage of archive footage about the infamous head of Hitler's SS, Heinrich Himmler: what is it truly about?
Is it about our never-ending fascination as to why and how the rise of National Socialism in 1930s Germany was possible, with the existential struggle between Good and Evil of World War II? Is it about trying to understand the mentality that made Nazism possible? Is it about the disconnect involved in being perfectly normal family men with a genocidal, lethal job?
In attempting to reconcile the callous bureaucracy and chilling cruelty of the Nazi regime with Himmler's personal life, Ms. Lapa, an Israeli journalist and filmmaker born in Belgium and the descendent of Holocaust survivors, is trying to understand dispassionately what drove a man like the feared SS leader to direct such barbaric acts. In many ways, The Decent One - the title suggesting the perfectly average family life Himmler led, shown in extracts from his correspondence - tries to engage its subject with journalistic zeal and an archivist's attention to the minutiae of the context in which everything happened.
The accumulation of inexhaustibly researched material (a wealth of which comes from Himmler's family archives and had never been made public before), however, as the (almost too) bloodless end result proves, brings the viewer no nearer to a glimpse of the reason why.
What the film does portray, chillingly, is a sort of underlining of Hannah Arendt's commentary of the "banality of evil", the sense that the kernel of the horror behind the Holocaust lies almost forgotten underneath a labyrinthine series of layers of bureaucracy and protocol; the idea that the machinery of war and genocide, and its minutely reported and noted process, was in fact the real heart of the regime, a desire for order, hierarchy, respect to be maintained at all costs (the much vaunted German efficiency becoming a tragically distorted negative of itself).
The Decent One doesn't necessarily answer the questions it poses, and that's not necessarily a bad thing since it reminds the viewer of the reasons why they must continue to be posed. But I also couldn't help think that, at some point, Ms. Lapa also loses sight of the answers because she is too absorbed in the technical challenge of having to construct her film entirely out of archive footage (and some of her artistic choices, especially when it comes to sound effects and music score, are laid on a bit too thick for effect). It's a challenge she meets head on magnificently, resulting in an undeniably important historical document, but one that, underwriting everything that's been said before, leaves you none the wiser.
Israel, Austria, Germany 2013
Director and producer Vanessa Lapa; screenwriters Ms. Lapa and Ori Weisbrod; composers Jonathan Sheffer, Daniel Salomon and Gil Feldman; editors Noam Amit and Sharon Brook; production company Realworks in co-production with Felix Breisach Medienwerkstatt, ORF, MDR and WDR
Screened February 9th 2014, Kino International, Berlin (Berlinale 2014 Panorama official screening)