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film review

The Decent One utilizes letters, photographs and diary entries to draw a portrait of Heinrich Himmler.

In the fall of 1941, when greater Germany ruled from the Atlantic to the outskirts of Moscow, Heinrich Himmler sent death squads into the occupied areas of the East. "Despite all the work," the head of Hitler's SS police force wrote to his wife, "I am doing fine and I sleep well."

Himmler is the subject of a sardonically titled documentary that utilizes recently unearthed private letters, photographs and diary entries, along with with archival footage, to prosecute the man with his own testimony. As it would almost have to be, it is a chilling portrait – but all the more so due to the detached, focused manner he applied to his abominable tasks, along with his belief that his cause was just and that his character was that of a "decent" German.

The Decent One was made by Vanessa Lapa, an Israeli journalist and the grandchild of Holocaust survivors. Himmler, considered to be the architect of the Holocaust, is seen as a rodent-faced twerp with a soul of pure sieg heil. The fascination of the film is to see his anti-Semitic development and how matter-of-factly and self-righteously he carries out his monstrous race-cleansing.

Evil prospers, it has been said, when good men do nothing. Evil also prospers when a sociopath with a genius for compartmentalizing rises to a position of horrifying authority.

Director Lapa uses Himmler's own words (voiced by an actor) against him. But she doesn't so much bludgeon him with a sledgehammer as she slices him with a scalpel, cherry-picking his written passages to cast him as a deplorable human being. She's quite the maestro with that scalpel.

As a sickly, bespectacled child with an outstanding bowl cut, "our little Heinrich," as his mother called him, followed the fortunes and misfortunes of the German forces in the First World War. Later, at Munich University, the undergrad Himmler described himself in his diary as moody, and pessimistic about politics. He also lets it drop that "people don't like me," and that a local pub was "crawling with Jews."

His reading list included Germania by the Roman historian Tacitus, whose ethnographic work thrilled Himmler with the thought of how "morally pure" his ancestors were.

He also picked up Oscar Wilde's The Priest and the Acolyte, which disgusted him with its homoeroticism. By design, Lapa follows the Wilde passage with an entry that has Himmler deeply admiring the Nordic male: "The slender figure of the man, standing tall," he wrote. "A victorious expression in his bone and muscle structure."

Later, after Himmler had advanced well up the Nazi hierarchy, he gave a speech on the "question of homosexuality," and ordered the arrest of all gay men.

Lapa does not come out and say that homophobic Himmler was a latent homosexual.

In fact, Lapa doesn't come out and say anything. And neither do any talking-head historians – there are none of those, and no eyewitness accounts, either.

The director sometimes ham-handedly embellishes the readings of notes written by Himmler, his wife, his mistress and his daughter with music and sound effects, but the film works best when it is at its most austere. The creep's flippant approach to the barbaric anti-Semitism of the Holocaust – "I am travelling to Auschwitz. Kisses, your Heini," he writes to his wife – is enough to brand him as majorly indecent, no matter what noble cause he thought he was furthering.