In 'The Captain,' Clothes Make The Man — And The Monster

Jul 26, 2018
Originally published on July 27, 2018 6:44 pm

The first image in Robert Schwentke's The Captain is an open field. You hear World War II coming before you see it — an off-key trumpet, gunshots, the roar of a truck.

With the German war machine in its death throes, shedding men and munitions as it flails, Willi Herold (Max Hubacher), a German deserter, is being chased across the field by drunken Nazi soldiers. They're in no rush. Herold's starving, half-frozen, exhausted. He's operating purely on adrenaline, they purely on alcohol. His incentive being greater, he makes it to the trees bordering the field, and survives another day.

Herold's hardly the only German deserter around, in these last few days of the war. He teams up with another soldier to steal food, and watches as that soldier is caught and killed. He comes across an abandoned car and finds, in the back seat, a suitcase with an officer's uniform: coat, boots, hat. He puts them on, mostly for warmth, and starts singing to himself at his good luck, only to be startled by the arrival of another German soldier. Herold freezes as the soldier comes closer, and salutes him, asking to be "attached to the Captain."

It takes Herold a moment to realize this means him. The new soldier gets the car running and becomes his driver. And as they travel together, the uniform works on others, too.

As played by the baby-faced Hubacher, Herold at first seems an innocent, using the uniform's power benignly — say, to cadge a free meal at an inn. But when some locals bring him a soldier who's been stealing food (essentially what he's doing himself, by getting that free meal), he realizes he either does what a real Nazi captain would do, or they'll see through him. So he takes a pistol and summarily executes the thief.

Things escalate. He picks up a squad of military police, waving away their questions by claiming he's operating on the highest authority. And he finds he can intimidate other officers — even ones who cite regulations and outrank him — by being the cruelest of the cruel. Soon, he's overseeing a bacchanal of brutality.

Remember that Stanford University experiment, where students, divided randomly into guards and prisoners, took on the traits associated with those roles, with the guards becoming vicious, and the prisoners sullen? Writer/director Schwentke has imagined an all-too-similar dynamic in a society that's both monstrous and collapsing, with social restraints in full retreat.

Nothing about Schwentke's Hollywood work with, for example, geriatric assassins Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren and Morgan Freeman in RED, or the dystopian teens fighting inner demons in Insurgent and Allegiant, suggested he was the guy to make any of this resonate in historical terms. But shooting in black and white, he's created an unnervingly persuasive portrait of deception gone haywire in a world gone mad.

He's ensured that The Captain is as gorgeously shot as it is filled with hideous imagery: men flailing and dying as the leading character dines unconcerned; whole platoons blown apart by airborne bombs; the near-dead walking through a field of skeletons.

The Captain is so violent that its cruelty starts to feel at once gratuitous, and calculatedly safe — with the Nazification and hence the historification of vileness insulating the audience from its consequences.

Until, that is, the filmmaker segues into a postscript calculated to leave audiences slack-jawed. I won't spoil its surprise, but I will say that it happens behind the end credits, and once it begins, if you're anything like me, you won't see a single name.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

World War II movies often focus on courage under fire and battlefield heroics. But the German film "The Captain" takes another tack. It's set in the last moments of the Nazi regime's collapse and centers on a German deserter. Critic Bob Mondello says the captain is a true story of deception gone haywire.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: An open field - you hear the war coming before you see it - a trumpet, gunshots, then the roar of a truck.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE CAPTAIN")

MONDELLO: Willi Herold, a German deserter, is being chased across the field by drunken Nazi soldiers. They're in no rush. Herold's starving, half-frozen, exhausted. Somehow, though, he makes it to the trees bordering the field and survives another day.

Herold's not the only German deserter in these last few days of the war. He comes across an abandoned car - inside, a suitcase with an officer's uniform, coat, boots, hat. He puts them on mostly for warmth and starts singing to himself - it is good luck - then freezes in panic as another German soldier comes into view and salutes him, asking to be attached to the captain.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE CAPTAIN")

MILAN PESCHEL: (As Freytag, speaking German).

MONDELLO: It takes Herold a moment to realize this means him. The new soldier fixes the car and becomes his driver. The uniform works on others, too. Herold, played by babyfaced Max Hubacher at first seems an innocent, using the uniform's power benignly, say, to get a free meal. But when some locals bring him a soldier who's been stealing food, essentially what he's doing himself by getting that free meal, he realizes he either does what a real Nazi captain would do, or they'll see through him. So he does.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOT)

MONDELLO: Things escalate. He picks up a squad of military police, blowing off their questions...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE CAPTAIN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, speaking German).

MAX HUBACHER: (As Willi Herold, speaking German).

MONDELLO: ...By claiming he's operating on the highest authority...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE CAPTAIN")

HUBACHER: (As Willi Herold, speaking German).

MONDELLO: ...And finds he can intimidate other officers, even ones who cite regulations and outrank him, by being the cruelest of the cruel, overseeing a bacchanal of brutality.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE CAPTAIN")

MONDELLO: Remember that Stanford University prison experiment where students divided randomly into guards and prisoners took on the traits associated with those roles, guards becoming vicious, prisoners sullen? Writer-director Robert Schwentke has imagined that dynamic in a society that's both monstrous and in mid-collapse, social restraints in full retreat.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

MONDELLO: He's ensured that "The Captain" is as gorgeously shot in black and white as it is filled with hideous images - men flailing and dying as the leading character eats a sumptuous dinner unconcerned, whole platoons blown apart by airborne bombs, the near-dead walking through a field of skeletons. "The Captain" is so violent that it starts to feel gratuitous until a postscript calculated to leave audiences slack-jawed. I won't spoil its surprise, but I will say that it happens behind the final credits. And once it starts, if you're anything like me, you won't see a single name. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.