Hollywood will be hard-pressed to come up with a more horrifying film this year than writer-director Robert Schwentke’s “The Captain.” Schwentke is perhaps best known to American audiences as the filmmaker behind such hit-and-miss shoot-’em-up movies as “RED,” “R.I.P.D.,” and “Insurgent,” which makes this return to his native Germany a rather surprising departure.
Shot in black and white and set in the final days of World War II, “The Captain” is every bit as violent as those movies, and twice as tense, but it’s a different beast entirely: a period piece — one with a chilling contemporary relevance — about Willi Herold, a kid just 19 years old, who found a Nazi officer’s uniform, assumed the role, and self-righteously went on to murder an estimated 170 of his countrymen. Herold was a real person, and the film assumes a passing respect for history, but it’s hardly the kind of penitent, play-it-safe war movie we so often get from Germany: grim, TV-funded costume dramas that get caught up in all the period-correct pageantry while respectfully distancing themselves from the past.
Year after year, German audiences dutifully sit through humorless reenactments of Nazi atrocities, learning their history lest they be doomed to repeat it, the same way progressive-minded Americans watch films like “The Help” or “Hidden Figures” that depict bigotry still very much alive in society today. Few and far between are the movies (such as Dietrich Brüggemann’s 2015 “Heil”) that actually implicate modern viewers in the evil, which is precisely what makes “The Captain” such a remarkable film. Not a great one, mind you — the movie starts out with a bang but swiftly falls into a kind of prolonged and distressingly outlandish tedium, and lodges there for the better part of its rather taxing running time — but a brave and uncompromising indictment of human nature, Teutonic or otherwise.
Among Schwentke’s most daring choices is the decision to make Herold a sympathetic figure, at least at first, inviting us to identify with the young man as he flees for his life from a gang of sadistic Nazi soldiers on the hunt for deserters. Played by handsome ultra-Aryan actor Max Hubacher (who looks like a younger version of “Sense8” star Max Riemelt), Herold narrowly escapes his pursuers, meeting up with another lost infantryman separated from his unit. Casting is everything in “The Captain,” and this gaunt extra may as well be a walking skeleton — an uneasy companion for a short time, until he’s caught and barbarically killed by a pair of farmers protecting themselves from looters.
It’s a gruesome sight, but hardly the worst we’ll have to witness before the credits roll on a film whose striking monochromatic aesthetic (a departure for blockbuster DP Florian Ballhaus) isn’t merely a classy stylistic conceit but a way of shielding audiences from the sheer amount of bloodletting in store. And then Herold stumbles upon the car, which contains a Luftwaffe captain’s uniform a few sizes too big. Herold looks ridiculous in it, like a child trying on one of his father’s suits, but he plays the part of the accidental imposter well, convincing others they come across on the road that he’s on a secret mission from “the highest authority” (e.g., the Führer himself), and suddenly, this would-be prisoner of war finds himself imbued with intoxicating clout, overseeing the fate of prisoners at a camp for German deserters.
Here, in the spirit of classic psychological studies of obedience and role-play by Stanley Milgram and Phillip Zombardo, is a real-life case of an individual being corrupted by the power vested in a uniform — and an illustration of the way that others respond to such an authority figure, offloading impunity for their own villainous impulses onto someone else. It’s a chilling true-life example of a phenomenon that repeats itself time and again in the world. (“The Act of Killing” brilliantly explored how this occurred in Indonesia, and one could trace the rise in hate crimes under President Trump to a similar dynamic.)
In actuality, the so-called Executioner of Emsland appears to have been a self-anointed sadist, as opposed to the inadvertent catalyst/conduit for the bloodthirst in those around him, but Schwentke’s interpretation is all the more damning. If anything, what doesn’t work about “The Captain” in dramatic terms (satire too dark to qualify as comedy, as Herold arrives in the prison camp and gives the go-ahead to begin executing the inmates) can be excused by the scathing critique it delivers of the way people look to a leader to justify horrific actions that are in their nature — or worse, their unwillingness to challenge orders that they instinctively recognize to be wrong.
Schwentke surrounds the frustratingly blank Herold with characters who represent both extremes: There are sickos just waiting for the excuse to kill, like the maniac Kipinski (Frederick Lau), and others who seem caught up in the madness, such as the lowly, sad-eyed Pvt. Freytag, played by Milan Peschel, who serves as a conscience for the film, his disapproval escalating as Herold spirals out of control. Schwentke creates a kind of artificial suspense in the character of a rival officer (Wolfram Koch) — the same one we saw hunting Herold in the opening scene — who swears he never forgets a face. But mostly he is struggling to keep the audience’s interest as Herold’s actions become increasingly outlandish.
“The Captain” ultimately devolves into a kind of absurdist burlesque, as if determined to test how far it can push things. In a way, audiences’ willingness to go along with the spectacle — as opposed to exercising free will and storming out in protest — is a further illustration of our complicity in or ambivalence to unconscionable acts. For those who make it that far, Schwentke saves the most troubling commentary for the end credits, as the actors, dressed in full Nazi regalia, drive through a contemporary German town, frisking and otherwise harassing ordinary townspeople. What is it about a uniform that causes us to suspend our better judgment, the film asks. And would we behave so differently if the circumstances were repeated today?