When portraying Nazis and Nazism, filmmakers often reduce the “banality of evil” concept to the bureaucratization of genocide by leaders and the claims by soldiers that they were “just following orders.” Robert Schwentke’s German-language film “The Captain” expands that notion by examining the lies we are willing to accept to survive or further our goals.
“The Captain” tells the bizarre, true tale of Willi Herold (Max Hubacher). A deserter whom we first encounter fleeing his superior officers two weeks before the end of the war, Herold escapes and continues traipsing about the German countryside. He steals food from civilians, ignoring warning signs that looters will be shot, all while attempting to avoid being forcibly returned to the front (or worse).
Herold lays low until coming across a truck with a captain’s uniform stashed in the back. Slipping it on — rolling up the pant cuffs so as not to look too absurd — he quickly adopts the mannerisms of the officers who were so recently terrorizing him. And those mannerisms help him when another apparent deserter, Freytag (Milan Peschel), stumbles upon the truck.
“Apparent” because it is never made entirely clear whether Freytag, like Herold, is a deserter. Freytag claims to have lost his unit during an attack, asking permission to attach himself to “Captain” Herold’s command. When accused of deserting, he denies it vociferously, understanding the firing squad awaits those who have fled. But Herold never pushes the issue too harshly, given his own status. The two circle each other warily, silently believing that the other has deserted, neither willing to acknowledge or state the obvious because to vocalize the pact would make it too real, too terrible.
The theme of the tacit agreement replays throughout the film in various ways. When Herold happens upon an inn behind the front where wary villagers doubt his credentials and seem ready to abandon the Reich altogether, Herold wins them back by promising to treat looters harshly. (A promise he brutally keeps, to their pleasure, minutes later; it is the first inkling of how far Herold will go to maintain his deception but not the last.)
Later, Herold and his attachment of likely deserters — which swells as the movie progresses and the Reich nears wartime collapse — is discovered by a squad of military policemen, and the “captain” is able to talk his way out of trouble by demanding to see the papers of the head MP. No one, it seems, is particularly interested in scrutinizing anyone else lest their own deceptions come to light.
While the first half of the film plays as farce, after Herold stumbles across a work camp housing deserters, looters and other German criminals, the game turns deadly dark. Stymied by the judiciary and desperate to dispose of the state’s enemies before Allied forces roll through and liberate them, Captain Junker (Alexander Fehling) and the camp’s other overseers recognize Herold as a godsend: Here’s a man claiming to work directly for the Fuhrer — a man who can bypass the judicial logjam and get things done.
The audience, and Herold, recognize Junker: He was the officer shooting at Herold as the movie opened. It takes Junker a few scenes to make the connection himself, but once he does, any concerns are quickly brushed aside. Blowing Herold’s cover means blowing his chance at destroying the traitors in their midst, and some things matter a bit more than “honesty” or “justice.” Things like “executing 90-some prisoners at the Aschendorfermoor prison camp on the orders of a private playacting as captain.” (Herold would be executed for this war crime following the end of the war.)
“The Captain” is shot in stark black-and-white, with a very brief interlude during which we see the modern-day field where Aschendorfermoor currently rests, empty save the flora and fauna. Schwentke’s stylistic choice here is striking: The monochromatic nature of his photography draws attention to his compositions, as when Herold, set against a snow-swept background, dresses himself in his newfound uniform, primping and preening as he’s seen officers do these last few years.
Herold knows that looking the part is only half the battle: You must move the part, speak the part, sneer the part. But what Herold seems to find most surprising — and what we in the audience must reckon with — is the willingness of those he encounters to swallow the lie so long as they get something from his fabrications as well. “The Captain” serves as a chilling warning against playing along with evil to save your own skin or further your own agenda.
One can’t help but wish “The Captain” were playing in more than a handful of American theaters at the moment.