Sunday 23 September 2018
Triumph of the Will: "The Captain"
After racking up a couple of flashy box-office hits (2002's Tattoo, 2003's The Family Jewels), director Robert Schwentke left Germany around the point its filmmakers began making renewed efforts to address the country's troubled history. While his contemporaries made Downfall and The Lives of Others, Schwentke would be in Hollywood, making a fitful (albeit doubtless well-compensated) career churning out passing multiplex filler, films like 2005's Flightplan, the 2009 adaptation of The Time Traveller's Wife and 2010's RED. With that chapter at an end - perhaps as a result of the eternally underwhelmed responses to his YA Divergent films - the filmmaker has returned home to write and direct the kind of film the German industry might have encouraged him to make had he stayed put in the century's first years - only now he gets to make it with an extra decade's worth of showmanship and storytelling nous under his belt. The results qualify as the biggest surprise of the week.
Shot in wintry black-and-white (with thematically helpful shades of grey in between), The Captain recounts the remarkable and instructive true tale of Willi Herold (Max Hubacher), a deserter from the German army who, during his flight from the frontlines of WW2, had the weird fortune to stumble across a jeep containing an errant Nazi officer's uniform and papers. Assuming this new identity gave a man fleeing in fear of his life food, board, good standing with those he subsequently encountered, and even a small army of loyal followers to fight battles of his own devising; as these developments played out on screen, I was reminded of that very early episode of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, where the gang reluctantly agree to burn the same, inherited items of clothing ("It just seems like a waste of a perfectly good Nazi uniform") after they spur on certain individuals to commit terrible abuses of power. Schwentke's film, however, sets out its stall as tragedy with an early graphic that establishes Herold made his discovery mere weeks before the end of the war. Whatever superpowers this outfit bestowed upon him, they would very quickly wear off; yet this didn't stop Willi Herold leaving a jawdropping trail of destruction in his wake.
The question hovering over at least the first act's events is: well, what would you do? What looks like opportunism from one perspective might look from another like social mobility in a country gone to naught. The complicating kicker is that said mobility demanded Herold act in a manner concordant with the uniform, first by shooting those unlucky enough to have been found guilty of the same looting he himself had got away with, then by accepting an offer to become onsite efficiency expert for an overstretched yet hitherto comparably peaceful concentration camp. At each critical juncture, the camera finds in Hubacher a boyish malleability, a willingness to do anything to be accepted - and not necessarily from a desperate need to stay alive. Instead, this Willi Herold's eyes grow darkly dreamy with the prospect of reentering the military at a far higher level than the one he exited at, with all the benefits (respect of and power over men, an extra glass of red at lunch, the attention of women) and only a little of the dirty work. More chillingly yet, his deception spreads: he demonstrates how easy an imposture like this is to carry off, and his entourage, themselves waiting for a chance to push their luck or otherwise go off-book, laps it up.
If The Captain shapes up as a good deal more than just another black-and-white period piece, it's because Schwentke's script taps into a deep well of psychology, still recognisable today in the clique, the committee, the corporation: one bad apple, and the entire fruit basket can start to fester. It's just that the cover-up here, outlined in a grisly sequence around the halfway mark, involves bodies in a pit. Needless to say, there is a seriousness about this undertaking that wasn't readily apparent in, say, Flightplan. The second half digs in and doubles down on the consequences of Herold's actions, coming back up with a steady parade of horrors: mass executions, bodies blown to bits, a Salò-like retreat to a hotel, a forest overrun with skeletons. (That monochrome begins to resemble Schindler's List far less than it does Night of the Living Dead: one man gets bitten by the power bug, and soon everybody around him is infected.) They're kept from exploitation, however, by Schwentke's clear-eyed deconstruction of fascism as equal parts madness, virus, self-interest and shared delusion, a game that may start with dressing-up or role play, but which soon drags everybody south, if not underground, for real. The astonishingly bold closing images - too close to home to be as crass as they might have been, a coup de cinéma perhaps only someone who's worked in Hollywood would think to attempt - confirm The Captain as a film that speaks as unnervingly to 2018 as it does to 1945.
The Captain is now playing in selected cinemas.