Vanessa Lapa's documentary, "The Decent One," brings the epistolary form to documentary, using narrated excerpts from a trove of top Nazi Heinrich Himmler's diaries and letters — including those of his wife, Margarete, his parents and even eldest daughter Gudrun — to create a sort of how-did-he-get-here slice of grim history.
Himmler's rise as the 20th Century flowered was a benchmark of sorts for Nazism's ascent: A lonely middle-class kid emboldened by a fascistic sense of race and nationalism — references to "humans and sub-humans" abound — turned into an ideal lieutenant for a tyrannical demagogue like Hitler.
The correspondence, read by actors, is offset visually by archival snippets of Germany from the Weimar days through World War I and, after Hitler's rise to power, footage of the Third Reich that regrettably takes on a paralyzing sameness because of its ubiquity in World War II documentaries. What doesn't help, though, is the poor choice of augmenting that footage with sound effects, which cheapens the impact, nearly always drawing attention away from the correspondence.
At its most effective, though, "The Decent One" reveals a psychological portrait of a man devoted to his family yet consumed by a soul-blackening and horrifically destructive cause.
"The Decent One"
MPAA rating: None
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes.