Writer/director Robert Schwentke returned to his native Germany after a decade and a half in Hollywood making films like ‘RED’, ‘The Time Traveler's Wife’, ‘R.I.P.D.’ and the ‘Insurgent’ franchise, seeking a story that would allow him to look at the dynamic structure of national socialism. The result is a rare German film that deals with the Third Reich through the eyes of a Nazi protagonist.
‘The Captain’ is based on the true story of Willi Herold (Max Hubacher), a young Luftwaffe paratrooper who abandons his post in April 1945 when it becomes clear that the war was over and his side had lost. After being pursued by a roving German commando unit through the German countryside, Herold miraculously stumbles upon an abandoned car containing a Nazi officer’s luggage, including the full dress uniform of a decorated Luftwaffe captain. Thinking quickly, Herold dons the uniform and began gathering soldiers he finds wandering the countryside around him, organising them into an impromptu unit.
Although initially promising the local populace a decrease in looting, Herold becomes increasingly despotic as more disparate troops join his command, named Kampfgruppe Herold. In ‘The Captain’, these troops include Freytag (Milan Peschel), a kindly, trusting rifleman who is made Herold's driver, and Kipinski (Frederick Lau), a sadistic drunk who seems to instinctively recognise that something is off about his new commanding officer.
Eventually, Kampfgruppe Herold marches into the Aschendorfermoor prison camp, where Herold tells the officers on duty that he has come to assess morale behind the front and inspect the camp on the orders of Hitler himself. As Herold begins to enjoy his newfound privilege, the film continues to dig deeper into the dark core of human nature...
Agnieszka Holland’s ‘Europa, Europa’ was the tragic true story of Solomon Perel, a German Jewish boy who escaped the Holocaust through strange providence, masquerading as a member of the Hitler Youth. ‘The Captain’ is like the evil twin of Holland’s film and approaches Herold’s tale with a nihilistic, pitch-black sense of humour. Both men are put into a situation where the only options are survival or death, but where Perel was wracked with guilt over his deception, Herold luxuriates in it. In one scene, he admits to the warden of Aschendorfermoor that he is an imposter, while framing it as a party game. The warden goggles uncomprehendingly for a moment before laughing it off as joke. Herold just grins slyly.
Max Hubacher’s performance as the short, baby-faced Herold makes him almost sympathetic. We first meet him, exhausted, covered in grime and looking a little like Flyora, the hero of Elem Klimov’s ‘Come and See’ who witnesses unimaginable evil until all that remains is shock and raw instinct. This changes once he finds the slightly-too-big uniform. At first, it's gratifying to watch him bluster at hulking soldiers, saying just enough to intimidate people out of asking to see his marching orders (bringing to mind Matt Damon’s anti-hero in ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’) and the scenes of him pitting the bumbling German wartime bureaucrats against each other are like something from ‘The Thick of It’ or ‘Veep'.
Save for one brief moment (a la ‘Schindler’s List’), Schwentke and his cinematographer Florian Ballhaus shot the film entirely in black and white, which almost seems appropriate for any World World II film. ‘The Captain’ is about a man who takes a journey which carries him further away from anything familiar. Colour - particularly in landscapes - connects us with things due to our familiarity with their tonal values, and this would have undermined a basic element of the story. According to Schwentke, he was inspired by Martin Scorcese’s ‘Raging Bull’, which used black and white footage, as otherwise people wouldn’t be able to watch the film and see beyond the blood.
Looking at our current political landscape and the rise of nationalism globally, led by politicians who employ sharp rhetoric for their own means, using hate to create fear, the questions asked in the film are still painfully relevant in 2019.
Set to Martin Todsharow's ambient score, the violence on camera is unsettling (particularly a scene that mirrors the one from Mel Gibson’s ‘Apocalypto’ where tribesmen are offered freedom in exchange for "target practice") but usually short and sharp. A mass execution via an anti-aircraft gun is horrifying, but shot in a way that obscures the carnage. We see soldiers firing their sidearms relentlessly into a pit of bodies in order to pick off any survivors, though we never see into the pit.
In fact, there are few close-ups; the camera keeps its distance and sometimes looms overhead, so that the viewer can look down on some of the worst atrocities. The camera placement is impeccable, with scenes staged so that the foregrounds and backgrounds are equally arresting. When not on camera, violence looms in the background, a pervasive, atmospheric rumbling that you could fall prey to at any given moment. With the moral distance afforded by Schwentke's careful approach, the audience is encouraged to sit back and analyse the harrowing psychology at the root of fascism.
Initially, we see Herold supported by the loyal, sad-eyed Freytag, who acts as his personal valet. As he slides into moral degradation, he leans on the thuggish Kipinski, whose own malevolent behaviour (he punches a farmer’s wife in the face in his first appearance) increases with the support of his commanding officer. Eventually becoming uncomfortable with having an angel and a devil on either shoulder, Herold orders Freytag to participate in more of the atrocities.
Are Herold’s actions a byproduct of his new uniform, much like the infamous Stanford prison experiment (or Ruben Fleischer’s ‘Venom’, if superhero films are your only cultural reference points), or was he already a psychopath who found circumstances amoral and chaotic enough for him to thrive? Is simply telling people what they want to hear all that you need to do to turn ordinary people into fascists?
Looking at our current political landscape and the rise of nationalism globally, led by politicians who employ sharp rhetoric for their own means, using hate to create fear, the questions asked in the film are still painfully relevant in 2019. Schwentke even acknowledges this in a credits scene that sees Kampfgruppe Herold cruising around modern day Germany, harassing bewildered but otherwise compliant pedestrians, like a pitch-black episode of MTV’s ‘Jackass’.
Far from being blockbuster slop that slides from mind an hour after it ends, Schwentke’s first independent feature made me want to seek out his earlier German films, like ‘Tattoo’ and ‘Eierdiebe’. ‘The Captain’ is a thoughtful, brutal and morbidly amusing study of the corrupting nature of power and the rise of evil.