Film Review: The Captain

A surprisingly palatable, artfully crafted docudrama about a German army deserter who poses as a Nazi officer and instigates brutal killings.
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A chilling yet unexpectedly palatable docudrama, artfully written and directed by Robert Schwentke, The Captain tells the true story of World War II German army deserter Willi Herold, who, upon finding an abandoned captain’s uniform, poses as a Nazi officer, assembles a band of followers and commands them to murder all the prisoners in a detention camp for soldiers accused of desertion.

Unconcerned with psychological analysis, the film doesn’t explore why “the captain” behaves so sadistically—whether he was mentally unstable in the first place or was made so by wartime circumstances. Rather, it demonstrates how this common soldier shifted into a survival mode that transformed him into a cunning creature, distanced from reality. Schwentke pinpoints the moment of transformation with elegant filmic artistry. Shot in black-and-white—with brightly lit starkness, not a shadowy film noir look—the film opens as deserting Private Herold darts through a bare forest, chased by armed soldiers. After hiding petrified in a hole, his face completely covered with dirt, he eventually realizes he’s safe and starts to lift his head. His eyes are nothing but elongated, fluorescent white slits that shine out at the world, monster-like. This arty imagery signals a detachment from reality that sets us up to follow Herold’s actions with heady contemplation rather than intense emotional involvement.

The film is so blatantly and beautifully artistic—with a hauntingly spare score, uneven pacing rhythmically underlining dramatic beats, and often obvious camera movements slowly closing in for expressive emphasis—that despite its gruesome subject matter, it’s surprisingly easy to watch. In German (with English subtitles), it sports a superb cast of European actors who support Schwentke’s stylized approach to the drama’s ironies and hints of satire. When Herold (Max Hubacher) initially discovers the discarded uniform, dons it and begins playing the role of a captain, he adjusts his posture, rehearses giving orders abusively to subordinates, and tops off his “costume” with a Colonel Klink-like monocle. Here—as in a later scene when bumbling bureaucratic power struggles at the camp threaten to interfere with the phony captain’s expedient slaughtering—we recall familiar portrayals of Nazis from comedy movies and television shows, and almost want to laugh. After one especially efficient round of killings empties out an entire barracks, an officer remarks, “Going marvelously, isn’t it?”

It’s intriguing to watch how Herold, an excellent improviser, gradually builds his band of followers and ultimately convinces everyone that he’s acting on orders from the Führer himself. Each time he encounters new people, particularly “fellow” officers who could potentially discover he’s an imposter, the tension mounts. Under Schwentke’s unhurried direction, the actors are given plenty of time to do their work and we relish watching the captain “think on his feet.” More often than not, his choices surprise us, and his unpredictability is delightful.

While its dialogue and acting remain within the realm of dramatic realism, the film teases the borders of absurdism to startling visual effect, as when shots of a brawling lot of drunken soldiers gracefully shift into images of men down on their knees howling at the sky like a pack of wolves. Or when, called out of a pants-hemming session with his tailor to see off soldiers assigned to preempt lawlessness by picking up and disposing of deserters before they commit crimes, the captain appears on his porch and authoritatively addresses the troops in his undershorts.

Because we never actually see anyone being killed and there’s no blood—thanks to the black-and-white photography—the film allows for comfortable consideration of its overarching themes. Schwentke’s delectable drama is ultimately a keen indictment of the stereotypical German affinity for efficiency and the sense of community born of bonding together in the hurting of others.