Taken out of the context, “The Captain” would be a fascinating story of a con man that convinced scores of people that he was an authoritative figure simply by wearing a uniform. The fact that we are talking about the Executioner of Emsland, a German soldier who impersonated a Luftwaffe captain and then murdered over 100 prisoners, makes Robert Schwentke’s film a bitter pill to swallow.
After scores of mediocre Hollywood films like “Flightplan” with Jodie Foster, “The Time Traveler's Wife” with Rachel McAdams, and the “Divergent” series, German director Robert Schwentke returns to his roots for a harrowing look at the true story of 19-year-old Willi Herold (Max Hubacher who resembles a young Daniel Craig), a German soldier who fought in Italy and then found himself on the run during the chaos of World War II’s final days.
Shot in glorious black and white by cinematographer Florian Ballhaus, the effect gives “The Captain” an aesthetic quality that forces the audience to concentrate on the action on screen without the distractions of color. Viewers are forced to use their imagination to speculate on what it must have been like in actuality which makes Schwentke’s film more powerful. At the same time, the lack of color makes “The Captain” easier to digest considering the subject matter. Imagine watching Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” in color as blood splatters across the screen, it’s one of the reasons the director chose to shoot in black and white. The intensity of the film is heightened while the realism is diluted making it more digestible for audiences.
It’s April 1945, the final two weeks of WWII. Willi Herold (Max Hubacher), a 19-yr old German deserter, is on the run from the Nazi army during a chaotic time which also found the Germans on the run from the Allied Forces. Herold comes across an abandoned car stuck in a ditch featuring a suitcase that includes the belongings of a Captain in the Luftwaffe, the Nazi German Air Force. He puts the uniform and boots on (which fit him to a tee) and no sooner is he joined by another deserter, Freytag (Milan Peschel) who mistakes Herold for an actual Nazi Captain and asks permission to join his attachment.
Herold is a young con man who was almost caught by a group of military police roaming the countryside. He convinces them that he’s under the direct orders of the Führer and they become part of his squad which heightens the young soldier’s ego to the point of no return. When he comes across a prison camp for German deserters his authority is questioned by camp officials and so he orders the extermination of all the men being held in the camp.
“The Captain” is like an anti-”Schindler’s List” that puts the audience in the shoes of Herold as we observe why he did what he did from a detached vantage point. Schwentke doesn’t attempt to raise sympathy or even empathy for Herold but he does an adequate job of giving viewers a ringside seat leaving them to draw their own conclusions. It’s a dark but fascinating story that once again demonstrates the atrocities committed during WWII viewed from a different vantage point.
(3 ½ stars)
Now showing in Austin at the Regal Arbor 8 @ Great Hills Cinema