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A new documentary offers some uncomfortable insight into the mind of Adolf Hitler's SS chief. The film is based on previously undiscovered letters and photos. It premiered last week at the Berlin Film Festival. Reporter Esme Nicholson has more.
ESME NICHOLSON, BYLINE: The film's protagonist is Heinrich Himmler, the merciless architect of the Final Solution. The film's director is Vanessa Lapa, the grandchild of Holocaust survivors. Her family recently came into possession of long-lost private letters, diaries, and photographs belonging to Himmler. Lapa stores them in a bank vault in Tel Aviv, and not only for security reasons.
VANESSA LAPA: The few times that the bank was closed and I kept them in my apartment overnight felt uncomfortable. For my parents, it's impossible to touch them. They are too close and too tainted by what their parents went through.
NICHOLSON: Like her parents, Lapa was reluctant to read Himmler's intimate thoughts, but eventually decided to confront the often humdrum, sometimes cheerful correspondence of a husband and father who was also responsible for the systematic murder of millions of people. The result is a documentary of unusual form. Lapa bases it solely on the documents. There are no eyewitness accounts, no interviews with historians, nothing to create the often obligatory balanced view. Just archive footage, family photos and two voices, those of Himmler and his wife as read by actors.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through Translator) Letter number 65. Dear Marga, how nice it is to know that when I knock off duty, I'll be able to spend a few hours with my little wife. With love, your Heinrich.
NICHOLSON: Lapa collaborated on the film with the SS chief's great niece. After the premiere, Katrin Himmler told NPR how she felt when she read her great-uncle's letters for the first time.
KATRIN HIMMLER: (Through Translator) My first impression was how mundane the letters were. But look closer, and it's clear what Himmler and his wife believe in: anti-Semitism and the rejection of democracy.
NICHOLSON: In July 1942, Himmler writes to his wife: I am traveling to Auschwitz. Kisses, your Heinrich. The casual note home makes no mention of the recently installed gas chambers he is off to inspect. Sven Felix Kellerhoff is senior editor of the daily conservative broadsheet Die Welt, which recently published the letters in an exclusive series.
SVEN FELIX KELLERHOFF: (Through Translator) He felt no urge for understanding. There's a sense of normalcy and that's what is so shocking about these letters.
NICHOLSON: Not one of almost 700 letters makes any reference to the Holocaust. Instead, Himmler obsesses about being decent. And this is what led Vanessa Lapa to the title of her film.
LAPA: To call the movie "The Decent One" is reflecting the complete perversion and twisted morality of this man because for him, to kill in a decent way is a decent act.
NICHOLSON: In Poznan in 1943, Himmler appealed to high-ranking SS officers to act in a civil manner in the concentration camps.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
HEINRICH HIMMLER: (Through Translator) We Germans, who are the only people to treat animals decently, will also treat these human animals decently.
NICHOLSON: Lapa's film has been well received in Berlin. But newspaper Die Welt's decision to make a week-long iPad-friendly series out of the letters has not been met with the same approval. Alexander Kissler is the arts editor for the monthly political magazine Cicero. He calls the publication a hack job that panders to emotions.
ALEXANDER KISSLER: (Through Translator) Every time I click on the newspaper's homepage, there it is - Himmler's grimace, smiling back at me. It says that's our Himmler, and I find this deeply problematic.
NICHOLSON: But for Lapa, her work is done. The letters are out there, no longer hidden away. And soon they'll leave the bank vault in Tel Aviv for good. Her family has offered the documents to several institutions around the world, including Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. For NPR News, I'm Esme Nicholson in Berlin.