Nothing can prepare you for the opening scenes of The Captain.
It’s 1945, just two weeks before the end of World War II, and a young German soldier — a deserter named Willi Herold (a marvelous Max Hubacher) — is being pursued by military police across a bleak landscape. Hiding in the root of a tree, he somehow manages to narrowly escape their hunt. Starving and cold, he continues his quest only to encounter an abandoned car.
Miraculously, in the back seat, he finds a suitcase containing an officer’s uniform, a basket of apples and hope. Discarding his ragged uniform (and his humanity as well), he quickly changes into the officer’s coat festooned with medals, dons the military cap and is chillingly transformed into The Captain.
Shot in high-contrast black-and-white by cinematographer Florian Ballhaus and stunningly directed by Robert Schwentke, The Captain had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2017. Not surprisingly, it won the Jury Award for Best Photography at the San Sebastian Film Festival 2017. After working in Hollywood for many years (RED, Flightplan and The Time Traveler’s Wife), Schwentke returned to his native Germany to tell the true story of Herold, nicknamed the “Executioner of the Emsland,” who rallies a ragtag group of deserters and becomes a merciless beast. Even the music is haunting: a blend of horns and mechanical, industrial sounds that add mightily to the heightened tension.
The film focuses on the captain and his followers; a barbarous group who are happy to be Herold’s acolytes and not in prison. As they arrive at a camp designated for deserters, he claims to be in charge of “special tasks” and is to write a report on the situation at the front, at the behest of Hitler. Continuing the charade with more gusto, his spiral of violence continues. Losing his moral compass and any sense of humanity, Herold incites a brutal massacre of the encamped deserters and thieves, which is followed by a macabre celebration. This is the only time that Jews are mentioned in The Captain are as part of a vaudeville-type performance to commemorate the extermination of German deserters/prisoners.
The Captain is a remarkable film; it’s just not for everybody. It’s difficult to watch a film in which there is no hero, no one to root for. If you go to the cinema for escapism (not the Willi Herold kind) or solely to be entertained, perhaps this film is not for you. But if you don’t mind historical context — in this case war with all its brutal trappings — you’ll be rewarded with a two-hour example of what honest filmmaking should be.
Schwentke’s only misstep is the coda added to the closing credits. In full Nazi regalia, Herold and his team drive around a contemporary German town and “harass” folks who are unaware. Don’t let this deter you. The Captain makes such a profound sociopolitical statement, it’s easy to ignore the last misplaced moments.