Remembered Far and Long, by David Bax
Just the idea of making a documentary about the life of Heinrich Himmler, the head of Adolf Hitler’s SS and one of the architects of the Holocaust, is fraught with dangers. Certainly, you wouldn’t want to risk the appearance of celebrating the man or even inviting an abundance of sympathy or understanding for him. But with The Decent One, director Vanessa Lapa and her approach to the material at hand serve not to humanize Himmler but to drive home the point that his brand of inhumanity is terrifyingly common and banal.
Lapa’s roadmap for Himmler’s story is a collection of correspondence among the man himself, his various family members and friends, and even his mistress. The documents were stolen by American soldiers during the war and they form a sobering account of a life propelled by some twisted destiny. Various actors read the letters while footage related to the events discussed plays out on screen. It’s like an alternate universe Ken Burns film.
The footage Lapa has assembled is stunning and often disturbing. Idyllic views of the German countryside and glorified depictions of its past are cheek by jowl with brutal and unflinching horrors like mass executions and their nauseating aftermath, such as a pile of dead bodies ten yards long and as tall as a man. Unlike in Burns’ films, though, Lapa decides to accompany her imagery with new sound effects. We hear wind blowing, people shouting, dogs barking and, of course, gunshots. It’s a risky decision in that it could very well have read as comical but it works because Lapa keeps the noise slightly muffled so it reaches the ear like a nightmare you can’t seem to forget.
What’s most astounding – and perhaps most germane to Lapa’s point – is that even though all the narration comes from people who knew and admired Himmler, the picture they paint is no less damning. From our future perch, we have the benefit of putting his life into context. But he and his family lived just as we all do, inside a privately curated echo chamber. Once a person has been accepted by his peers at normal, it’s difficult to recognize evil in him or her. We all practice a bit of confirmation bias in this way. The Himmlers were ascendant during the time of the Third Reich so it would have been easy for them to convince themselves that things were as they should be.
Himmler’s actions and beliefs are now easily categorized by us as psychopathic. And they probably were. Still, when he writes as a young man in a casually hateful way about women he dismisses as “slutty” or the one he approves of because at least she doesn’t “behave Jewish,” he sounds sickeningly familiar to the YouTube ramblings of the young man who killed six people earlier this year in Isla Vista, California. The Decent One is not a portrait of a singular, historical villain. It’s a Wanted poster for all of those like him who walk the earth now and will continue to do so.