“THE CAPTAIN”— Based on a True Story

“The Captain” Based on a True Story Amos Lassen Robert Schwentke’s “The Captain” follows the true-life exploits of Willi Herold (Max Hubacher), a German soldier who deserted his post in World War II only to turn the Nazi machinery of mindless obedience on itself. The film opens two weeks before the end of the war in 1945 and Germany is chaotic and as concerned with prosecuting its own as it is with fighting the Allies. Herold evades his pursuers by fleeing into the countryside where he luckily stumbles upon a Luftwaffe captain’s uniform in an abandoned military vehicle. He wears the uniform for warmth at first but then uses it to impersonate a Nazi captain. He then  seizes control of Camp II, a prison camp for German deserters. There, Herold oversees the execution of men who should theoretically command his empathy.
The viewer is instinctually encouraged to sympathize with a man on the run from the Nazis and this makes it shocking when Herold shoots another deserter and looter point blank in the head in order to maintain his own lies. This wakes us up regarding the extent of Herold’s conviction in his new role. But Herold remains a cipher throughout the film, exhibiting few emotional reactions about anything. I saw him as a character who existentially emphasizes humankind’s primordial capacity for selfishness and arbitrary cruelty. This plays into the cliché of the Nazi as an unfeeling monster. Herold is a concept rather than a character, and so the film has nowhere to go aside from reminding us over and over again the hunted are prevented only by superficial status from turning into the hunters.
When Herold and his soldiers reach Camp II, which is in the midst of crisis, Schwentke gives us the specifics of the Nazi regime through hindsight and symbolism. Control of the prison camp is divided between the German military and the country’s justice department. Schütte (Bernd Hölscher) is the military’s top man at the camp, and he wishes to execute the prisoners without the court martial that he’s been awaiting. Hansen (Waldemar Kobus), the leader of the camp’s internal prison wing, sees this as a threat to his own power. Schütte and Hansen are recognizable everymen who have been conditioned by bureaucracy to reduce human atrocities to numbers and signifiers. “Schwentke recognizes an irony that’s familiar of the Holocaust and other campaigns of evil: that such vast cruelties are composed of minute actions that are governed by an everyday desire to honor protocol, to commit evil the “right way”.” These scenes are the high point of a film. The black-and-white cinematography and stark framing encourage one to take history as a given, playing into our preconceptions of how the Holocaust is supposed to look. In one fashion, Schwentke proves to be too complicit with his protagonist regarding evil and human banality as stimulation to tells us things we think we already know. What this is, I believe, is a farcical set-up to tell quite a brutal story.
The film has the structure of a classic mistaken-identity farce and the tone of a serial-killer film. It’s too bleak to laugh at and too absurd to cry over. It was an insane time in April 1945, months from the end of World War II and when exhausted German soldiers deserted the collapsing front in huge numbers. “Willi” Herold  has scarcely escaped death and after putting on the captain’s heavy overcoat to stay warm, Herold begins to clown around, taking both sides of a dialogue between his own self and an imperious Nazi officer. That’s when another lone private, Freytag (Milan Peschel), spies him from afar and assumes that he’s the real thing. This is a comedy with a single joke and that joke becomes larger and more consequential at every stage: to escape detection and certain death, the young Herold must not just pretend to be a captain, he must also exercise dominance over anyone liable to discover his secret. He is constantly challenged and he gets the better of his challengers, either by demanding to see their papers, announcing that he’s working directly for the Führer, or, eventually, ordering executions. His “Task Force Herold” is composed of ex-deserters now charged with finding and killing other deserters. Only little Freytag seems to understand the larger absurdity: that these men are in effect murdering themselves in a nihilistic endgame.
The film is in the face of our deeply held notions of individuality and free will: We’re convinced that both things exist, while Germans have learned from experience that “identity is elastic and most wills are too weak to escape the pull of prevailing norms.” There are “good” Germans in “The Captain” andamong them is the head of a prisoner camp who watches men dig burial pits for their own future corpses and demands to know on whose authority Captain Willi Herold is acting. But for every man who objects, there are more who murder with a sense of relief, on the assumption that a bullet in someone else means one less for them. It is lightly noted by a Nazi higher-up that, if nothing else, Willi Herold did much to “curb the defeatist mentality” in those he did not murder. We are left to contemplate this vision of Fascism as a machine that can sustain itself even in the absence of explicit directions.
 “The Captain” begins, in tonally rich black-and-white, with a desperate bedraggled soldier fleeing on foot as a jeep pursues him. We see a parable that shows that  even the smallest people can rise to the occasion when suddenly given authoritarian power to wield.

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