The Captain is a dark, dark film about the intersection of innate evil and evil ideology. Set in the final days of World War 2, almost all of the characters are Nazis. There are some civilians, eager for the war to end, but watch how easily they slip back into hateful platitudes. You may already be familiar with Robert Schwentke, who wrote and directed this film, since he also made mainstream fare like Flightplan, RED, and The Time Traveler’s Wife. Here he abandons traditional entertainment, and dives headlong into his sinister premise.
Max Hubacher plays Willi Herold, a frightened German soldier. When we meet him, he is running away from superior officers. Willi is a deserter, you see, and with the war almost over, the surviving Nazis have nothing better to do than slaughter their own. After barely escaping, Willi wanders the countryside until he finds an abandoned car. There is a pristine captain’s uniform inside, so Willi puts it on to stay warm. When another soldier greets him, the private salutes Willi like a typical German officer. Willi takes the deception and runs with it, enjoying the subsequent respect and comforts. In order to maintain his cover, Willi keeps on lying until he finds himself orchestrating mass murder. You can tell he’s enjoying himself.
There is some suspense over how Willi gets himself out of each challenge ahead of him, but this suspense requires you – at least on some level – to worry about what happens to a Nazi. This might be too much for some audiences, so Schwentke adds two crucial elements to keep his film tolerable: elegantly composed black and white photography, and gallows humor. There is a lot of killing in The Captain, and almost all of it is cold-blooded, but the absence of color spares us the realism of gore. In fact, many sequences are highly stylized, such as a grotesque party that devolves into a Grand Guignol–style orgy. The humor also involves violence, such as a shocking moment of grindhouse splatter.
But for the most part, The Captain is a series of tense negotiations with Willi and actual Nazi officers. Memorable ones include Junker (Alexander Fehling), a sardonic veteran who thinks fondly about the glory days of invading Poland. He is slick and revolting, more interested in sadism than country or party. His counterpoint is the vulgar Hansen (Waldemar Kobus), who believes in the Third Reich down to his bones. For him, Willi’s resolve suggests Germany just might turn the tide. If Junker is bloodthirsty, then Hansen is delusional. This film is an informal census of what Nazism enabled in these men. All of them are repulsive, and recognizably human.
When The Captain introduces empathy, it is fleeting. Sometimes the camera lingers on the faces of these men, usually when they have a moment of doubt, terror, or pity. It is instructive what triggers these feelings, since enlisted men and officers treat slaughter differently. Others protest Willi’s orchestrated mass murder, saying he flouts every convention of war they have, but the genius of The Captain is how Willi slithers through protocol. If all this sounds implausible, there are title cards assuring you that the film is based on a real episode of German history. Willi did instigate all those things, and was eventually hung for it. That he did it at age twenty-one only underscores the toxicity of Nazism.
This might be the most disturbing World War 2 film since Downfall, which focused on the last days in Hitler’s bunker where he moved imaginary armies. Still, a more direct inspiration for The Captain is the Soviet film Come and See. Willi looks a little like Flyora, the hero of Come and See who witnesses unimaginable evil until all that remains is shock and raw instinct. Like the director Elem Klimov, Schwentke realizes the real horror is not at the top, where leaders could think in abstract terms. It is on the ground, where atrocities are sudden and inescapable. The quality of the filmmaking and the performances are the only things that make this pitiless like film tolerable. Who is the audience here? Maybe those who like realism in their horror? Or history buffs? Either way, Schwentke has a singular vision of the war, and he earns the right to share it with you.