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The rot of Nazism is shown as having contaminated the very German soul in The Captain, an initially compelling if increasingly problematic parable set at the end of World War II that basically argues that it was never too late to become a vicious exterminator. Darkly evocative of the chaotic final two weeks of the war and resplendently shot in widescreen black-and-white, writer-director Robert Schwentke’s relentless film wants to show how the Nazi mindset sanctioning all manner of evil was not restricted just to card-carrying believers but filtered down to infect the general populace, as represented by the actions of a hitherto hunted, desperate man. Sure to stir controversy in Germany, this looks like a good bet for considerable international play.
A dramatic opening in a snowy farmland pulls you right in, as a presumed deserter from the German army desperately tries to escape being gunned down by his countrymen in the every-man-for-himself landscape of early April 1945. When Private Willi Herold (Max Hubacher) and a momentary partner try to steal some eggs, the latter is killed, whereupon Herold must fight the farmer and kills him. The door has been opened and he takes the first step.
Fate then chooses to favor this pathetic young Everyman, who shortly finds an abandoned official car, along with a captain’s coat, uniform and shoes, all of which fit. At an inn that night, his mettle is tested when he puts on the airs of an officer, claims to be on a secret mission to report on conditions behind the front line and, to prove his ruthlessness, shoots a looter. The locals are convinced.
So it’s to be the story of a masquerade, an act, an overnight conversion from victim to judge and jury who can exercise authority over life or death on a whim. Pathetic worm that he was, Herold settles into his new role in life quickly and with ease, even as he can never be certain who might turn up and expose him as an imposter.
A bright man’s logical next step would seemingly be to use his perceived authority to get himself somewhere he could just slip into the crowd or, at worst, surrender to the Allies. But it’s rather nice being a captain, even in a nation in its death throes, and he shortly comes across a detention camp full of regular army deserters waiting to learn their fate.
Staffed by other officers, this is a place where the slightest slip by Herold would land him right in with the other prisoners. But he continues his high-wire act, claiming that he’s been sent by the Fuhrer personally. Despite their skepticism, will any of the authorities dare question him?
With everyone else hemming and hawing, Herold steps into the void and takes action, rounding up a bunch of men who, a week earlier, might have included himself, and mows them all down with an anti-aircraft gun. There is more gruesomeness, followed by ironies, weird twists of fate and, finally, a strange in-color contemporary coda that feels far less convincing than it does like Schwentke just making a point to be provocative.
The Captain is at its best exhibiting this unknowable man’s charade, this daring attempt by a desperate young man trying to save his skin by pretending to be something he might have liked to become but never was close to being. As a study of real-life acting, the tale could have become one of many different things: a high-wire tale of risk, a darkly absurdist yarn about a guy who suddenly discovers he’s a born con man or even an outright comedy about a country bumpkin who, in an extreme way, has greatness thrust upon him and must rise to the occasion.
Unfortunately, Schwentke never draws the viewer close to Herold; we know nothing about the young lad who’s pulling off this personality heist, his previous life, his true feelings about the Nazis and the war (maybe he really was a true believer to begin with). Perhaps a running narration as to what his logic is during all this might have elevated this portrait of evil. But that would have compromised the German Everyman intent the writer-director seems determined to stress. All we know at the end is that Herold has no conscience and might well do better working for the secret police in East Germany than he would in the West.
This is Schwentke’s first feature made in his native land since he began his career there in 2002 with Tattoo and, the following year, The Family Jewels. In the interim he has made six mostly forgettable mid-range action dramas, including Flightplan, The Time Traveler’s Wife and RED, so this return home represents a rejuvenation of sorts. The central premise is arresting, as is the style, but there’s a lot more that could have been done with it than just show how one ill-defined individual instantly opts to join his country’s lowest form of life.
Production companies: Filmgalerie 451, Alfama Films, Opus Films
Cast: Max Hubacher, Milan Peschel, Frederick Lau, Bernd Holscher, Waldemar Kobus, Alexander Fehling, Britta Hammelstein, Sascha Alexander Gersak, Samuel Finzi, Wolfram Koch, Marko Dyrlich
Director-screenwriter: Robert Schwentke
Producers: Frieder Schlaich, Irene von Alberti
Executive producers: Philip Lee, Marko Barmettler, Marcel Greive, Kay Niessen, Daniel Hetzer
Director of photography: Florian Ballhaus
Production designer: Harald Turzer
Editor: Michal Czarnecki
Music: Martin Todsharow
Casting: Anja Dihrberg
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentation)
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