In life, one must always be decent, courageous and kind-hearted.
— Heinrich Himmler to his 12-year-old daughter Gudrun in 1941
IN 2006 a cache of letters and diaries written by Heinrich Himmler and his family came into the hands of Israeli documentary maker Vanessa Lapa, herself the grandchild of four Holocaust survivors. Himmler joined the Nazi Party in 1923 and from the beginning was one of Adolf Hitler’s most passionate, organized, and ambitious followers. He rose to direct the S.S., to organize and oversee the Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing units) as well as the building and running of the extermination camps, to become both the chief of German Police and the head of the Gestapo. He was the worst of the worst.
Many of the letters and documents that found their way to Lapa were intensely personal papers, diaries from his boyhood, love letters, letters to his daughter and his parents, letters detailing the running of his household while he was off serving his Führer. In her documentary, The Decent One, Lapa uses actors to read Himmler’s words and the words of his family members, in effect letting him tell his own story his own way. To find the footage to accompany Himmler’s story, she and her team visited more than 200 archives world-wide, and Lapa includes in her film scenes of everyday life throughout Germany in the years that Himmler lived, as well as home movies of Himmler and other Nazis relaxing and living their day-to-day lives. Using discretion and restraint, she also allows the viewer images of the horrors not directly mentioned but sometimes alluded to in the personal papers of Heinrich Himmler. She uses much footage never before seen outside of the archives in which they were found. The result is as fascinating as it is disturbing, and the film heralds a new kind of Holocaust documentary, one made by a documentarian two generations removed from the original horror, one that dares to look at a perpetrator with the assumption that he is not an animal or a monster but a human being.
I met Lapa when she showed her film in Los Angeles and subsequently conducted this interview with her via email.
LAURIE WINER: Can you describe some of the emotions you felt while sorting through Heinrich Himmler’s love letters and his loving letters to his daughter Gudrun?
VANESSA LAPA: First, discomfort, as it meant peering into someone else’s private love letters, which I do not like to do in general. But, because the letters were written by Himmler, I of course felt a sense of curiosity. Then helplessness. Then I tried to disassociate the letters from the man I knew, namely “The Architect of the Final Solution” — how is one to understand a man who discussed gardening and the childrens’ schooling with his wife while he was at the same time planning the slaughter of millions of human beings? I tried to understand his psychology: is it possible that he was a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? I realized that the answer is NO. He is the same man in private and in public. He manages to twist and pervert every value, even in his love letters to his wife while he is courting her. He tells her he loves her but feels compelled to say there is something he may love more: the Nation.
The further I read the more I found evidence of the man’s deep sadism and perversion, of his castrating personality, which he inflicts upon his wife, daughter, adopted son, his subordinates, and his lover. Regarding his one-year-old daughter he writes: “She couldn’t even hold her hand still.” I felt disgust and simultaneously I felt a growing fear. He is educating a child, thus a generation is being educated in the same way.
And I understood: it has happened once and it can happen again.
It was fascinating to see Himmler grow from an awkward boy teeming with self-hatred into the epitome of arrogance, if that word is sufficient. After spending more than seven years with this material, would it be possible to describe how, in Himmler’s case, you think that transformation occurred in psychological terms?
I am not a psychoanalyst, but basically the awkward boy who was always an outsider found an organization that he could fit in with, one with seemingly easily understandable rules: discipline, order, and obedience without questioning. And this place he found for himself fit him and his dreams perfectly — it echoed his perception of the great myths of a glorious German past.
[Lapa suggested I also ask this question of Nathaniel Laor, a professor in the department of psychiatry and philosophy at Tel Aviv University. Here is his reply:]
People with phobias will often attempt to master those phobias using what psychologists call counter-phobia or reaction formation, a process by which they adopt exaggerated versions of the opposing tendency, or a literal inversion of the original tendency or quality — thus a person who fears that he is weak develops sadism as the polar representation of his most feared or hated characteristic. A person with a phobia concerning high altitude will become a paratrooper. In the case of Himmler — who was a meticulous disciplinarian not only of others but of himself — once he perceived the gap between his private and deep sense of humiliation and the man he believed he needed to be in the world (given his sociopolitical context), he devised a schedule of self-hardening, both of his political ideology and his physical tolerance for cruelty. He chose his bêtes noires — homosexuals, Jews, etc. — just as he chose the aggressive ideology — racism — and trained himself physically to overcome his spells of anxiety (which he suffered throughout the war).
Himmler’s self-doubt pushed him to continual self-testing of his own achievements, and the world paid the price. The social acceptance of Nazi ideology turned him into a savior of a whole nation from a “malady” onto which he could project his own secret fears. That way, no gap remained between his ideal self and his personal frailty. Add to this dynamic his sadism and his facade of restraint (out of his need for the “purity of the mission”) and you get precisely the extreme arrogance you so aptly have referred to.
Back to Vanessa Lapa …
You mention in the film that American soldiers who occupied the Himmler home in 1945 took many of the family’s personal papers. Your father purchased the papers from the estate of an Israeli collector named Chaim Rosenthal, who said that he bought the collection from a former adjutant to Gen. Karl Wolff, who was Himmler’s liaison officer with Hitler. Do you have any sense of how the letters and diaries got put back together and found their way to Karl Wolff?
From 1960 until 2006, Chaim Rosenthal kept the collection under his bed. His son convinced him to give the collection to someone who will do something important with it, and it was his son who contacted a professor at Tel Aviv University, who knew me and called me to come and see the collection with the idea that I might make a documentary from it. After thinking about it for a month I decided to pick up the challenge.
There is a gap in the chain of events between 1945 and the early ’60s. Rosenthal never told the story of how he got the collection, and he died with the secret. He may have purchased the collection from a flea market in Belgium or from a flea market in Los Angeles. A third option, as Rosenthal was for a time a cultural attaché at the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles, is that he got the collection from a couple who were crossing the American-Mexican border. Karl Wolff’s involvement is dubious, but if it happened it was definitely before the papers got to Rosenthal.
Was it an aim of yours to, as much as possible, feature footage that had not been used before?
Not as a primary aim. The main criterion about the footage was that it had to be privately shot, had to be “real life” footage, that is was not shot for propaganda reasons. I felt that this is what the text demanded. We went back to the very places where Himmler was born, where he grew up, and where he lived and visited when he was older. We went to libraries, schools, city halls, small archives. We went to neighbors and families from the same area and the same socio-economical range.
And after this, of course, we searched internationally for the most interesting and rare shots we could find.
Can you give us a sense of some of the material you ran into while researching — of the film that remains unseen, that is stored and one assumes deteriorating in these many archives?
Yes, we understood that there is a huge amount of unseen material both in private and public archives. There are still big private archives in the hands of Nazi heritage organizations that didn’t want to cooperate with us. We found, for example, amazing private footage of a boxing exercise between Reinhard Heydrich and his children, but we were not given permission to use it in the film.
There is also a huge amount of footage in the major archives that has not been digitized (for reasons of shortage of money and staff), so no one knows what could be found in those archives.
Now that so few witnesses remain alive to be interviewed, I’m noticing shifts in Holocaust study on several fronts. First, we have a new batch of films that look at the children of both the perpetrators and the victims. Second, since we are further away from the event itself, writers and thinkers seem to be exhibiting a freedom to enter the discussion from oblique and interesting angles — I’m thinking of the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard; I can’t imagine an author calling his memoir Min Kamp even 20 years ago. Can you say how your generation of filmmakers may be approaching the subject in ways that previous generations could not?
I believe that what you notice here is totally accurate. There is a big difference between the perspective of our generation (third generation) and the previous one (the children of survivors). As the grandchildren of survivors we have the necessary emotional distance to look at the Holocaust in a wider way and to realize that the perpetrators were human beings, which is not easy; it is far easier to categorize them as monsters/animals. Our healthy minds cannot really grasp that human beings like us could have come to commit these horrors, to have taken away the most basic essence of humanity: dignity and then life.
The proximity of our parents to the “trauma” of the survivors does not allow them to see anything but the agony (and very often the “silence”) of their parents. We are able to look at it from a perspective that in my opinion is crucial for the education of the generations to come. We, as the third generation, bear the responsibility to tell the story from different angles, which includes the POV of the perpetrators. We must examine it from as many perspectives as possible if there is the slightest chance to try and ensure this will never happen again.
You premiered the film (under the title Der Anständige) at the Berlin Film Festival. Can you tell us something about the reaction to the film in Germany, both at film festivals and at commercial movie houses?
At the Berlin Film Festival, the reactions from the audience were very emotional. Many German viewers recognize the lives of their parents and grandparents in the footage that shows Himmler’s everyday family life: in the fashion, the interiors, the village culture, the way of talking, the songs they were listening to. It brings back childhood memories; it brings the history very close to their own family and life, which is hard to accept. Several times German viewers attacked me for showing the Himmler family so normal, so average, so like them, so close to themselves. Others were shocked, as if for the first time they understood that this didn’t happen in books; it is “really” my history, my neighbors, my teachers, my relatives. It is unbearable to recognize in one’s own family so many of these details of daily life. We may even feel empathy for the Himmlers — though never sympathy — and that empathy can in turn provoke frustration and even anger.
At other German film festivals and special screenings — where we were invited — the audience reactions were mainly positive. A lot of Germans thanked us for doing this film and allowing them to have answers they never got by asking their parents or grandparents. In a sense we are all living with this “black hole” of history.
As a young child, when did you first become aware of the Holocaust and what did your parents believe about how to introduce a child to the subject?
Like many, many other things, it was always there.
It is part of history. It is part of my personal heritage. I learned about it at school and heard about it at home. When I was young I did not ask many questions of my grandparents. Today, the two grandparents who are alive speak very little about it.
Do you think, with the passage of time, that we get any closer to understanding how this happened? Or do we just perceive what we cannot know in new ways?
We know it was done by human beings, and, I believe, we know very well how it happened. The problem is we do not understand why this happened, and this is what we cannot perceive no matter what access and material we have.
I do believe that in the process of trying to understand we all may become better human beings. We often try to learn by studying people who changed history in a positive way. I think we also need to overcome the discomfort it causes us to try and enter the minds of those who changed history in a negative way. It is an intellectual challenge, but one we should practice more often.
Of course it’s a human need to try to understand why things happen, and then to kind of lock it up, to believe we have completed the process of understanding and we can go back to simply living. In the case of the Holocaust it will not be possible to complete the process, to ever fully understand.
Laurie Winer is a founding editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books.