The Captain (“Der Hauptmann”) (Robert Schwentke, 2018) 3½ out of 4 stars.
A tale so mad it can only be true, Robert Schwentke’s The Captain (“Der Hauptmann” in its original German) veers from one improbable situation to another, upping the ante of insanity beyond what seems possible, and then some more. Based on the real-life story of Willi Herold – a German private who, in the final days of World War II, discovered a discarded captain’s uniform and proceeded to wreak havoc behind the front lines – the film plays with viewers’ narrative expectations through its use of crisp, high-contrast black-and-white images that recall other historical dramas, such as Spielberg’s 1993 Schindler’s List, yet belie the satire to come. Only under a highly bureaucratic system like that of National Socialism could the horror (on top of all the other horrors!) unleashed by Herold have taken place. And though writer/director Schwentke – maker of such big Hollywood fare as The Time Traveler’s Wife, RED, R.I.P.D.and the second and third Divergent films – may not seem like the obvious choice for such a simultaneously exaggerated and nuanced take on Nazis, he not only pulls it off, but delivers a highly engaging, well-crafted movie, as well.
The film opens with Herold running for his life as a title card informs us that this is April, 1945, weeks before the German surrender. He is filthy and disheveled, chased by men in a car, almost bored by their task as they drink and fire their guns at will. Herold escapes (somehow), thereby living to destroy the lives of others. We never do learn why he was a target, though we can guess that, like many we later meet, he had deserted. Chaos reigns supreme in the Fatherland, and by some miracle the starving Herold discovers an abandoned car, in which the aforementioned uniform awaits. Donning it lends him an almost supernatural aura, and before long he has gathered a unit (of stragglers) of his own, possessed of the ability to bluff his way out of trouble. He need only claim he is on a mission from the Führer, and all is permitted.
Unfortunately, not content to save his own skin, Herold becomes caught up in the homicidal mania of power, seizing the opportunity to take control of a German-prisoner camp (as in, the prisoners are German, and mostly deserters), with deadly results. By this point, we’ve seen plenty of very good Holocaust films, but rarely have we seen the end-result of Nazi psychosis portrayed in quite this way. The heightened reality of the script makes it all the more terrifying (and also a little bit funny, which is part of the movie’s tactic). There are a few missteps here and there – I wasn’t sure about a sudden flash-forward, in color, in the final act – but overall Schwentke is in complete control of his message. I especially loved his end-credits sequence, in which the actors, in character, drive through a modern-day German city, accosting and robbing residents as if nothing has changed since the past.
The cast is superb, led by a brilliant Max Hubacher (Mario) as Herold, with Milan Peschel (Rock My Heart) and Frederick Lau (Simpel), among others, providing excellent supporting work. Florian Ballhaus, Schwentke’s frequent go-to cinematographer, contributes stunning images, while editor Michal Czarnecki (In Darkness) and composer Martin Todsharow (Punk Berlin 1982) add their own solid contributions to the mix. It’s a fine affair, hard to watch at times, but incisive in its assessment of the depravity of human nature. Beware the captain in all of us.
[In German with English subtitles]