Wednesday 26 October 2016

Sloshing around in the cesspool of Himmler's mind

HANNAH Arendt coined the phrase “the banality of evil”. It constitutes the final words of Eichmann in Jerusalem, her 1963 account of the high-ranking Nazi’s trial, as well as providing the book’s subtitle.

Vanessa Lapa’s powerful, ironically-titled feature documentary Himmler: The Decent One is made up of many small examples of the banality of evil. When piled relentlessly one on top of the other, like corpses in a concentration camp, they add up to a portrait of unequalled human cruelty that’s made all the more obscene when set against the backdrop of Heinrich Himmler’s supposedly idyllic life as devoted husband and father (this was a lie; he kept a mistress, Hedwig Potthast, with whom he had a child).

Some critics and historians have dismissed Lapa’s film as offering no new information about its subject, and perhaps it doesn’t for anyone with a strong interest in the history of World War II. This matters little; the striking thing here is how the story is told.

Eschewing a voiceover or talking-head interviews, The Decent One draws all its content from a large stash of documents found at Himmler’s home at the end of the war. There are excerpts from personal diaries and intimate letters to and from his wife and children, his parents and his mistress. There are official memos and letters and reports on the progress of the war and “The Final Solution”, which became Himmler’s personal brief.

The words, spoken by German actors, are overlaid on clips from newsreels, Nazi propaganda films and home movies. It’s clear that anti-Semitism burned darkly in Himmler as a boy. As a student at the end of World War I, he rages against the Jews and the humiliation of Germany, and yearns for another war, so he can prove himself as a soldier.

The letters between him and his future wife Marga are nauseatingly lovey-dovey (she calls him “naughty man”, he calls her “little woman”), yet full of what appears to be coy sexual innuendo. At the same time, there’s prudishness as he writes about “slutty Jewish girls” – although it doesn’t stop him dancing with one on a night out.

Marga, who lived into old age and raised funds to help convicted Nazi war criminals, was an anti-Semite too, her racial hatred allied to unvarnished idiocy.

She laments that Jews are “so crass” and observes that “Pollacks (Polish Jews) don’t even look human”.

A letter to Himmler by his then 13-year-old daughter Grunda recalls a visit with her aunt to Dachau – “the new home,” as Himmler called it during its construction, “for 5,000 Communist and Social Democratic nuisances”.

She writes excitedly to Daddy of seeing “the vegetable patch, the mill, the bees. Then we ate a lot. It was so nice!” The childish words tumble out over footage of a Nazi camp guard putting a pistol shot through the head of a still-living firing squad victim.

Lapa’s use of images throughout is as powerful and unsettling as the words they accompany. Now and again, the effect is darkly and grotesquely comic.

A speech by Himmler on the need to eliminate homosexuals from German society is accompanied by bizarrely homoerotic propaganda footage of “perfect” Aryan males (which the short, pebble-eyed, weak-chinned and athletically useless Himmler definitely wasn’t) mandhandling one another while wearing tiny shorts. The queer irony of it all was obviously lost on Nazi bastards.

At 90 minutes, Lapa’s film is ultimately overwhelming and emotionally draining. But it demands to be seen.

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