‘Decent’ Himmler documentary in running for Oscar
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‘Decent’ Himmler documentary in running for Oscar

Belgian-born Israeli Vanessa Lapa uses secretly held collection of Nazi leader's correspondence and photos to make challenging film

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Heinrich Himmler at Dachau in 1936. (Friedrich Franz Bauer/Wikimedia Commons/German Federal Archive)
Heinrich Himmler at Dachau in 1936. (Friedrich Franz Bauer/Wikimedia Commons/German Federal Archive)

The Decent One,” a documentary by Israeli filmmaker Vanessa Lapa about the notorious Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler, is being considered for an Academy Award nomination. Illustrated with rare archival footage, the film’s text is based purely on a recently discovered trove of private documents written by Himmler and his family members.

The film, one of 134 documentaries in the Oscars’ qualifying round, was submitted under the Israeli flag, although it is a co-production with Austria and Germany. First round ballots are due by the end of November, which will determine the 15 official nominees for Academy consideration.

Lapa’s unconventional approach in presenting the Reich Leader of the Nazi SS who is credited as the conceiver and implementer of the Final Solution against the Jews of Europe can be challenging for audiences. Letting the mass murderer speak for himself may be damning, but it can also be risky.

Although the contents of Himmler’s endearing missives to his wife and daughter are sometimes juxtaposed with harsh historical images, there remains the possibility that viewers without sufficient knowledge and understanding of WWII and the Holocaust might misinterpret the film’s intentions.

Even the title of the film makes use of sophisticated irony. Himmler, far from a decent man, repeatedly used the terms “decent” and “decency” in his private journals and correspondence. Decency was apparently the personal virtue Hitler’s top henchman admired and aspired to the most.

Even the title of the film makes use of sophisticated irony. Himmler, far from a decent man, repeatedly used the terms ‘decent’ and ‘decency.’ It was apparently the personal virtue he most admired

Lapa, 39, is thrilled that her film, which took seven years to make, is receiving such recognition. Her work on it was all consuming, and more intensive than a more conventional documentary that employs tried-and-true techniques like third-person narration, “talking-heads” interviews, and historical re-enactments.

“I came to the understanding that there was a huge opportunity to tell this story in an unusual way,” she says, sitting in her production company’s Tel Aviv office.

“The strict decision I made to use only Himmler and his family’s words [voiced by actors] made it so much more difficult. The limitations were huge.”

How those personal documents became the basis for the Belgian-born Lapa’s film is complicated and somewhat confusing.

In January of this year, the German daily newspaper Die Welt published an exclusive with the headline: “Heinrich Himmler’s missing letters surface.” Ensuing accounts published by other media outlets made it seem that a significant collection of the Nazi leader’s private writing and family photographs had suddenly been found in a Tel Aviv safe deposit box after having disappeared at the end of WWII.

The documents had actually been in Lapa’s possession since 2006, and it was she who had put them in the safe deposit box. Without having had access to the documents, she obviously could not have made her film.

‘I am off to Auschwitz. Kisses, Your Heini’

“I entered an agreement with Die Welt giving them the ‘scoop’ about the collection,” explains Lapa, who received part of the funding for her film from the Axel Springer Stiftung (Foundation). Die Welt is the flagship publication of Axel Springer SE, a European publishing company.

The “scoop,” the film, and a book based on the collection, titled, “Himmler Privat: Briefe eines Massenmörders” (Himmler Confidential: Letters of a Mass Murderer) by Heinrich Himmler’s grand-niece Katrin Himmler and Professor Michael Wildt, an historian at the Humboldt University of Berlin, were all deliberately scheduled to be released around the same time earlier this year.

'The Decent One' filmmaker Vanessa Lapa. (Courtesy)
‘The Decent One’ filmmaker Vanessa Lapa. (Courtesy)

Lapa’s production company, Realworks, Ltd., acquired the collection in 2006 after Lapa was introduced to Chaim Rosenthal, who had kept the correspondence in a box under his bed for 40 years, telling no one about it. Rosenthal’s son Daniel eventually convinced him he should show people the documents and transfer them to someone who would properly take care of them.

Following the collection’s authentication by experts from the German National Archives, Belgian businessman Dave Lapa, the filmmaker’s father, bought it from Rosenthal (for a token sum, according to Lapa) and gave it to his daughter so she could make what would become “The Decent One.”

The collection of personal letters, diaries, photo albums and other documents belonging to Heinrich Himmler and his family members. (Courtesy of Realworks, Ltd.)
The collection of personal letters, diaries, photo albums and other documents belonging to Heinrich Himmler and his family members. (Courtesy of Realworks, Ltd.)

Now that her film has been released, Lapa says she plans on creating an educational program using copies of the documents. The originals are being held in a safe deposit box until it has been decided to which archive, museum or other cultural institution they will be given.

‘The people who are directly connected to the story are either dead or aren’t speaking’

No one knows for sure how Chaim Rosenthal, an artist and collector who had served as Israeli consul for cultural affairs in New York and Los Angeles, obtained the collection. It has been speculated that Rosenthal, who died in 2012, acquired it during the 1960s in one of three ways: at a flea market in Brussels; at an LA flea market; or from a couple of travelers at the US-Mexico border.

“The people who are directly connected to the story are either dead or aren’t speaking,” Lapa says.

What is known is that close to the end of WWII, the documents were locked in a safe at “Haus Lyndenficht,” the home Himmler shared with his wife Margarete (Marga), daughter Gudrun and adopted son Gerhard in Gmund am Tegernsee, Germany. While Himmler was hiding in northern Germany and his wife and daughter were on the run to Italy, American troops entered the house and took the stash of written documents and photographs, but did not turn them over to the American authorities, as they should have.

The four soldiers split the collection into two parts: 1910-1926 and 1927-1945. They exchanged the first part with a US Army intelligence officer for a bottle of whiskey. Several years later, those documents were sold to the Hoover Institute at Stanford University, and scholars Bradley Smith and Tom Angress wrote book based on them titled, “Heinrich Himmler: A Nazi in the Making, 1910-1926.”

Gudrun Himmler's baby book, with photos of her and her parents. (Courtesy of Kino Lorber, Ltd.)
Gudrun Himmler’s baby book, with photos of her and her parents. (Courtesy of Kino Lorber, Ltd.)

The second half of the documents stolen from the Himmler home ended up in Rosenthal’s hands, with no one knowing where they were between the end of the war and the 1960s.

Among the 16 categories of items stored away under Rosenthal’s bed for decades were 273 letters from Himmler to his wife (the last one written two weeks prior to his suicide while in Allied custody), Gudrun’s baby book, Marga’s and Gudrun’s personal diaries, and hundreds of family photos (some arranged in albums). There were also a household expenses ledger, a recipe book filled with recipes Marga had written in her own hand or cut out from newspapers, and Nazi party documents belonging to Marga and her adopted son.

Wildt, the historian, was quoted in Die Welt as calling the collection “a dense body of private documents,” and saying, “There is nothing like it for any other member of the Nazi leadership.”

‘A dense body of private documents… There is nothing like it for any other member of the Nazi leadership’

The only other high ranking Nazi official to have left behind personal records was Joseph Goebbels, but his many diaries and dictations are considered to have been written for propaganda purposes.

Lapa built out the narrative of her film by doing extensive archival research. Ultimately, she included material from 151 different sources and set up her own cutting-edge facility to restore archival film footage.

“There was no restoration facility in Israel, so we bought the software from the UK and brought in a trainer to teach 10 of our staff members to use it. They worked for eight months in two shifts per day in order to do the restoration, a lot of which had to be done manually,” Lapa says.

She spent a significant chunk of the film’s €1.2 million budget on restoration.

“When the film was originally shot a hundred years ago, it wasn’t scratched,” she says in justifying the effort and expense for a film whose visual aspect relies solely on archival images.

Himmler with daughter Gudrun c. 1941. (Courtesy Kino Lorber, Ltd.)
Himmler with daughter Gudrun c. 1941. (Courtesy Kino Lorber, Ltd.)

“The Decent One” juxtaposes these moving pictures of Himmler running Nazi party rallies, and later at the front or supervising killing squads, with his and his family’s own words. Some of them reveal Himmler as virulently anti-Semitic and sexually perverse. However, for the most part, the Nazi leader’s correspondence home (not only to his wife and daughter, but also to his mistress, with whom he had two children), is filled with mundane chitchat about sleeping well despite all the hard work, reminding his wife he left a can of caviar in the ice box, and doing his best to fulfill Gudrun’s wish list for Christmas.

“I am off to Auschwitz. Kisses, Your Heini,” Himmler wrote home to Marga.

Notably, the film does not deal with the secret negotiations that Himmler conducted with the Allies to try to save his own skin toward the end of the war. In late November 1944, he defied Hitler’s orders and issued a self-serving countermand ordering a halt to the murder of Jews throughout the Reich and the destruction of the gas chambers and Auschwitz-Birkenau.

“Unfortunately, I could not find anything about this in his own words,” says Lapa. “I would have liked to have been able to include it, because it shows so much of his character.”

‘The more he talks, there is no place for misunderstanding who this man was’

Lapa, the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, considers “The Decent One” a journey in to the world of the Himmler family, a film about human beings, not WWII.

“I am presenting Himmler to audiences in the most authentic way. I am leaving it to them to come away with their own conclusions and to judge him as they see fit,” she says.

Lapa trusts the film’s viewers to perceive her intended message that Himmler was not a Jekyll and Hyde character, but rather an ordinary person whose choices brought about the murder of millions and the collapse of an entire culture.

All of Himmler’s promises to send lots of chocolate home to his daughter and sign-offs as “Euer Pappi” (Your Daddy) are not at all beside the point. They are the point.

“The more he talks, there is no place for misunderstanding who this man was,” says Lapa.

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