Best of luck to any director on the planet who’d try and topple the newest effort from German filmmaker Robert Schwentke (RED, The Time Traveler’s Wife) as the year’s most horrifying, beautiful examination of humanity’s inhumanity.
The Captain, presented in Schwentke’s native tongue with English subtitles, traces the true story of Willi Herold (Max Hubacher) through the final days of World War II, as the Reich is cratering in on itself. Herold, like so many others, has deserted the German army. As the film opens, he runs, then staggers from his still-Nazi pursuers. We are immediately drawn to Herold, mesmerized by his plight as he escapes, then comes across a Nazi captain’s uniform in a broken-down military vehicle. He is terrified, alone, exhausted and hungry.
His transformation unfolds with blinding speed. In black and white, Schwentke develops Herold into quite the imposter as he dons the Nazi garb: He will now play the part of a German captain hunting deserters. Schwentke's eye for clear shots and perfect light/shadow balance makes what should scare us all as nearly too watchable. Herold assembles a team of other deserters to comb the bombed out countryside, where they find, then kill more deserters.
Hubacher’s performance drives the film’s message, relevant now as ever: People fall in line to the cold machinery of authoritarianism so, so easily. By mid-film, Herold has taken over a concentration camp and ordered the killings of hundreds of German soldiers who had deserted. What’s so different and compelling about The Captain is its in-your-face brutality as shown, viscerally as hell, from the German perspective. This is not some dry, removed recounting of the dangers of fascism. Instead, Schwentke manages to show us in the space of two incredibly short hours that one needn’t be smart, stupid, calculating or subservient to fall for the allure and terror of fascism at the person-to-person, relationship level.
When it's self-preservation on the table, anyone could become part of Herold's murderous crew—in 1945 Germany or in 2018 Anytown, USA.
+Perfect timing for this film; staggering acting
-Maybe one too many mess hall brawls
Directed by Schwentke
Center for Contemporary Arts, 120 minutes, R
(In German with English subtitles)