Director: Robert Schwentke
Writer: Robert Schwentke
Stars: Max Hubacher, Milan Peschel, Frederick Lau, Alexander Fehling
I may have mentioned my obsession with World War II a few times before during my reviews of The Innocents, The Pianist, Land of Mine and Sophie Scholl. The reason being the myriad of different stories that dreadful but equally magnetising conflict spawned. The grand scale of the industrialised war itself, the whole host of interesting characters in positions of power through to the smaller, more personal and human scale struggles. The continual emergence of biopic films like ‘The Captain’, with a fairly obscure premise, but educational message, is a testament to the wealth of different, very adaptable content that period spawned.
The story of Willy Paul ‘Willi’ Herold, also known as ‘The executioner of Emsland’ wasn’t one I was aware of until very recently. In fact, it was only until I stumbled across the trailer for this film and done a little digging that I discovered this incredible story of high stakes blagging, debauchery and violence was true. You see, for a pre-war chimney sweeping, private of the Wehrmacht to assume the identity of a Luftwaffe Captain in the clinical, frenzied, law and order obsessed, fascist state of the Third Reich was both preposterous and incredibly dangerous in equal measures. This was a regime that brought back the guillotine and made it a popular tool of execution after all.
But this man, a mere twenty years of age, separated from his unit in war torn Germany, during the closing months of the conflict, displayed a brashness and cruelty that’s beyond all comprehension. He somehow bluffed his way through numerous prisoner camps, full of Nazi officials and Gestapo, accompanied by a small band of companions he’d amassed, immorally executing over one hundred of his countrymen, charged with desertion, theft and other crimes, in the process. So you can perhaps understand then the reason for his morbidly fascinating story being adapted. It’s unique if nothing else.
I’m not entirely sure whether Robert Schwentke used some artistic licence in the films opening shots, when he portrayed Herold (Max Hubacher) as a deserter on the run from a ragtag, brigand of Wehrmacht and a sadistic Captain with a propensity for drinking and cruelty. There’s no mention of him attempting desertion, but it was an effective way of highlighting that our main protagonist had turned into the very thing he was running from at the beginning, come the end.
It certainly set the tone for what was to come early doors, whilst showing the youthful figure at his lowest ebb, without food for days and in a state of utter desperation. One thing that wasn’t overly embellished was the manner in which he stumbled across the opportunity to obtain a new identity. The real Willi happened upon an abandoned car too, just like in the film, fortuitously containing a rather dapper looking black uniform and coat that almost fit him perfectly. Everything other than the inside leg of the trousers, incidentally. Which again, struck me as a modern day addition, written in as a clear and deliberate attempt at symbolism.
You see the Willi we meet at the beginning is a young man out of his depth, with the tiniest semblance of morality still left in him. He helps another soldier in a similar predicament before the pair encounter a sticky situation in a barn and he bails; then shortly afterwards, Freytag (Milan Peschel), after becoming the ‘Captain’ and even though there’s hints at his inner malevolence there, bubbling below the surface, he’s still like a kid in his dads clothes, playing dress up. It’s not until he meets Kipinski (Frederick Lau) really, a man who later remarks that he “entered his soul like a devil enters a virgin”, that we see the inner darkness begin to seep out.
The latter is a headcase of a man that’s embraced the chaos and loosening of order that the final stages of the war has brought. Willi goes around telling all in sundry that he’s on a personal mission from the Führer himself, sent to assess the conditions behind the front lines, but you get the feeling that Kipinski knows that’s all a fabrication from the very beginning and all it takes is one furtive glance at the overly long trousers. But he tags along anyway, using his new found ability to mete out violence with near impunity.
Willi’s journey is utterly engrossing and despite his spiral into ever increasing depravity, often fuelled by necessity, after many a probing look into his credentials, I still found myself willing him to evade detection at tense, fight or flight moments. Sure, he was a opportunistic, murdering weasel of a man, but there’s a certain degree of admiration to be had for such a daring, blasé con in a sense and the transformation of the character from a desperate, starved, deserter into a cold, calculating and glutinous officer figure was fascinating. I didn’t want it to end.
Max Hubacher was absolutely outstanding in his portrayal of the character. The nature of Willi’s predicament, the secret he was carrying, the many nail curling, sticky situations he found himself in, meant he often had to convey inner emotions through the eyes alone. You could sense his mild panic, discomfort, annoyance or disgust many a time through the flicker of an eye or subtle expression. He looks like the real Herold and with the overwhelming majority of the film locked on him, he carried it with absolute ease.
I can think of only two other actors that truly stood out with memorable performances. The aforementioned Frederick Lau, who played the ever dominant, brawny figure of Kipinski. In the group of sleekit, morally ambiguous men that congregated around the faux Captain, he alone was open from the very beginning about his motivations. Milan Peschel came the closest to eclipsing Hubacher though. The quiet, introspective character of Freytag was the sole shard of humanity in the film. He followed Willi from almost the beginning, but looked permanently aghast at the situation that was developing around him.
In a sense, Freytag was an important figure in a film saturated in satirically heavy themes. He was a representation of the audience, a warning of what can happen when Fascism and hysterical dogma is allowed to go unfettered. It’s a growing threat in modern day, western society with the extreme right becoming buoyed by prominent political figure heads in recent times. Schwentke seizes on the true story of an ordinary man, down on his luck, becoming enthralled with the symbol of a dangerous ideology and forgetting his morals and humanity in the process. The post credit shots of Willi and his group harassing people in todays era, whilst quite funny, only further doubles down on this message.
Visually, I thought the film was stunning. I have to commend Robert Schwentke and Florian Ballhaus for the decision to shoot in black and white. It adds a certain level of authenticity to the period setting, with a degree of disconnect too, which is isn’t necessarily a bad thing given the content and as we’ve seen this year with Roma, there’s just something magical about a black and white film. Ballhaus beautifully captures the emotion of even bit part players with lingering, over the shoulder shots and lovely close ups. The cinematography was a big positive.
All in all, The Captain was an extremely enjoyable journey into the deepest, darkest depravity of humanity and a great addition to the many WWII era films I’ve had the pleasure to watch over the years. It was a mostly character driven affair, away from the hustle and bustle of the real conflict and explored some important themes in a manner that never felt too on the nose, nor took me out of the film. Hell, Schwentke even managed to throw some humorous moments into the mix to lighten the tone at points. It was a beautifully shot period piece, had a couple of great performances and a good half a dozen colourful characters that bounced off each other well.