On a frozen land in the final days of war, a German deserter steals the identity of a Nazi commander, attracting a band of ragged followers in a masquerade that reveals how power in the wrong hands can turn a man into a tyrant whose cruelty is surpassed only by his duplicity and cunning.
Robert Schwentke’s new film, “The Captain,” is set during World War II, but its themes echo into a world that today is shaken by populists and demagogues. The violent tale of Willi Herold (Max Hubacher), who slips from scared grunt to calculating captain, is a morality lesson in how simple men can be twisted and corrupted, not so much by ideology, but by the fear they can instill in others.
“The Captain,” which opens Friday, examines Germany’s past through a haunting prism. Based on a true story, Herold’s exploits and justifications for brutality — and how easily men enlist in his charade — are a metaphor for how Adolf Hitler and other fanatics rose to power. Herold’s desperation to stay alive turns him into a master improviser. He disguises his opportunism in a perverse nationalism that spirals into bloodshed and debauchery.
Today’s European populists have fueled similar anti-immigrant sentiment and right-wing nationalism that was prevalent in 1930s Germany. Those movements, particularly in Poland and Hungary, along with President Trump’s brand of Twitter populism, are re-imagining global alliances forged after WWII. The political overtones of “The Captain” have gained in relevance since the filmmaker first came across Herold’s odyssey a decade ago.
“When we started shooting on set, we knew very well that this was echoing certain tendencies in today’s politics,” said Schwentke, who has directed “Allegiant” and “Flightplan.” “We’re faced with a new band of barbarians who flaunt democratic forms, who pay lip service to them, but then subvert them at every turn.” He added: “The film is about [Hitler’s] National Socialism, but it’s also about human nature.”
Shot in black and white, which gives it a scoured, foreboding tone, the movie follows Herold across a wintry land of suspicion and death. The uniform he steals transforms him. He assumes its power and gathers other misfits, as if a small army led by a sociopath. They mete out perverse justice at a prison camp for German deserters and trundle into a small town with violent and hallucinatory images that suggest the depravity of a nation that has too long clung to its delusions.
Those delusions are propelled by fear of the Führer’s Nazi machine and the uncertainty of what’s to come as the Soviet army presses in from the east. The country is falling apart; everyone seems in a vacuum with their sins, rationalizations and moral indemnities. In real life, Herold, who was accused of killing scores of his countrymen, was tried and executed for his murderous rampage. The film quotes from court transcripts in which one commander praises him:
“Given the chaotic times, Herold did not behave that unreasonably. He displayed a no-nonsense military demeanor, but, ultimately, he did not harm the Wehrmacht [Germany’s armed forces]… He’s one spirited fellow.”
German cinema has long struggled with the ghosts of World War II. The country has built Holocaust memorials; students are taught the horrors imposed by their ancestors. Movies and TV series, though, have been reluctant in exploring collaboration and guilt. But a few have, including, “Phoenix” (2015), an examination of the intimacies and lies that sent a Jewish chanteuse to a concentration camp; “Generation War” (2013), a journey across battlefield horrors and ethical relativism for a generation that had not reconciled its past; and “Death Is My Trade” (1977), about a Nazi officer who takes command of a concentration camp.
But Schwentke said German cinema has rarely dealt with the national trauma and moral culpability that French director Louis Malle brought to bear in his pictures about the war, notably “Au Revoir les Enfants.” Based on Malle’s childhood, the 1987 film tells the story of persecution and betrayal as Jewish boys are taken from school by the Gestapo and sent to Auschwitz.
“I also couldn’t find anything in German literature that posed those very uncomfortable questions that result from a shift in point of view from the victims and heroes to the perpetrators,” said Schwentke. “I realized that was a certain set of conventions to German historical films dealing with World War II that over the years calcified into a rule book no one was breaking. I wanted to make a film that did not align itself with all these conventions.”
Schwentke’s decision to shoot in black and white arose over how to portray brutality without overwhelming the audience with the colors of violence.
“There’s the anecdote,” he said, “about Scorsese shooting color test footage to ‘Raging Bull’ and showing it to [British director] Michael Powell, who was possibly the greatest master in cinema, and Powell saw the color tests and said, ‘You can’t shoot this film in color. You have to shoot it in black and white, because nobody will be able to look past the blood and violence, and they won’t understand that you’re making a film about violence and not a violent film.’ That always stuck with me. It was an incredible, astute analysis of how audiences perceive violence.”
Violence or the threat of it is incessant. In one scene, Herold sits at the prison camp with local Nazis. They are feasting and singing over the executions of deserters. They are drunk and rabid, and the celebration soon turns to more killing, as if a strange layer of hell had been ignited.
“This is not meant to be a character study,” said Schwentke. “It’s about a system. It’s not about trying to psychologically define or explain why Herold did what he did. I asked myself that question, and I thought all answers would be too reductive and simplistic. What I really wanted was the audience to find the answers on their own.”