Watching modern-day proponents of fascism infect our democracy’s political discourse has been strange to say the least, especially since they are a decided fringe, albeit a scarily vocal one. But here comes Robert Schwentke’s last-days-of-the-Nazis drama “The Captain” to remind everyone just how corrosively spreadable an ideology and political power like fascism was, even when Germany’s most war-battered could see the writing on the wall.
Returning to his German roots after a long stint in Hollywood making glossy entertainments including “RED,” “The Time Traveler’s Wife” and two “Divergent” films, Schwentke has fashioned a bleak, escalating case of combat madness out of the true story of a German grunt impersonating a Luftwaffe officer. Marked by arresting black-and-white cinematography and classically bold shot compositions that recall numerous war epics, Schwentke’s grim history lesson carries an undeniable propulsiveness. But it’s ultimately too ugly a story to be truly resonant.
For an hour, though, when it’s a survival saga with elements of coal-black satire, “The Captain” fairly mesmerizes. It’s weeks before World War II’s end when we meet Willi Herold (Max Hubacher) as a grubby, baby-faced Wehrmacht deserter being chased across a snowy field by German soldiers eager to kill him. Eluding capture, he stumbles upon an abandoned car, wherein he finds the uniform of a Nazi captain, complete with medals and, once he puts it on, a transformative air of authority.
Almost instantly, Herold straightens his spine, affects a sneer and play-acts shooting a deserter in what is clearly the manner in which he was intended to be executed. Before long, he’s collected a band of lost soldiers and military fugitives and turned them into newly energized followers, even though the smirky expressions of some indicate they know very well it’s a lucky guy’s eleventh-hour charade they’ve joined.
As Hubacher’s committed if impenetrably malevolent performance suggests, who needs the outlandish horror subgenre of zombie-SS movies (“Shock Waves,” “Dead Snow”), when history has always made it perfectly clear that a pristine Nazi uniform and an unshakable air of supremacy is all certain people needed to unleash their inner monster?
It’s when the story moves to a Nazi-held camp for captured deserters, where Herold, citing orders from the Führer himself, maneuvers his way into overseeing a mass execution, that “The Captain” veers precipitously into clinical mordancy. The awfulness that results from one clever opportunist’s power trip starts to feel less like an insight-driven exclamation point about human nature than a superficial ellipsis of inhumane acts. Regrettably, one wonders if Schwentke, in depicting a destructive Allied bombing raid on the camp, included a perfectly framed full-body explosion just to keep his directorial mayhem muscles flexed. Atrocities and showmanship are queasy bedfellows when making movies of this ilk.
Because Herold’s own psychology is of so little interest to Schwentke, the conclusion of the character’s malignant escapade feels curiously empty, even aesthetically glib. (A forest tableau of skeletons feels especially misbegotten — a closing credits sequence putting Herold and gang on modern-day streets like a half-realized prank.) That’s a shame because in the early stages, when it’s a dark, sizing-up farce about the allure of shiny despotism and the nuts and bolts behind that banal excuse “following orders,” “The Captain” sets itself apart. Especially as a corrective to the lockstep movie depiction of Nazi wickedness as an extension of the high-toned officer class: in Herold, we get to see how an Everyman becomes an uber-Nazi.
But it’s a shallower journey in the end. “The situation is always what you make of it,” says one of our impostor protagonist’s early adoptees, a brutish soldier whose viciousness is encouraged to reach full flower under Herold’s command. It’s when things go from the observationally curious to the performatively evil, however, that you realize rats behaving like rats doesn’t always make for the most rewarding of moviegoing experiences.
In German with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes
Playing: Landmark Nuart, West Los Angeles