Twenty-six years before the infamous Stanford prison experiment revealed how quickly figures of authority can collapse individuals’ moral framework, there was Willi Herold, a German WWII deserter who found a decorated captain’s uniform and transformed himself from hunted soldier to marauding punisher. Director Robert Schwentke explores Herold’s exploits in the final days of the war in his off-kilter drama The Captain. Filmed in black and white in the wintry countryside of Görlitz, Germany, Schwentke’s vision of a man who would be posthumously named the Executioner of Emsland is chilling and yet, at times, almost farcical.
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In the opening scene, Herold (Max Hubacher) seems an innocent baby face running for his life from the Nazis. Schwentke immediately endeared me to Herold, an underdog you can root for; when Herold loots a farm for eggs but then flees as his friend is caught and stabbed with a pitchfork, his behavior seems reasonable in the circumstances, a means of survival. But the moment Herold finds a Nazi captain’s uniform in the back of an abandoned car, his demeanor morphs. His chubby cheeks seem slimmer somehow, his cheekbones more pronounced, his back straightened, as though he’s dropped whatever weight of hunger and fear had once hunched him over. Hubacher’s performance is a masterful physical feat.
The film is a psychological exploration of fascism’s roots in the cowardly human heart. Herold begins collecting a misfit team of fellow deserters and military goons looking for one last kill and a strong-armed leader, and Herold grows more and more comfortable in that role. He sees how others admire him when he executes a looter; he craves more of that approval. Herold as the captain is never sympathetic, but his behavior — goaded by a gang of psychopaths under duress as their world crumbles around them — is nearly predictable; if his newfound crew longs for bloodshed, he will give it to them.
Things reach a head at a German prison camp, where Nazi deserters are strictly monitored. Herold sees a chance to solidify his rule and usurp the prison captain by murdering the deserters, even as it’s obvious that Allied forces will soon arrive to kill or capture them all. It’s unnerving and surreal how efficiently Herold and his men arrive at the decision that they will order the deserters to dig a trench, then stand in it and sing a merry German song while they wait to be shot to death by their own people. The soldiers speak to one another like this is the only rational solution to a problem that didn’t exist before they got there, a deadly mixture of bureaucracy and cold-blooded murder.
Upon hearing the order to kill prisoners, soldier Hansen (Waldemar Kobus) hoots and hollers, “Finally, some action!” The giant machine gun used in the execution jams halfway through the trench murders, and the soldiers turn to one another, momentarily horrified that they’ll have to kill each deserter one by one themselves — and Herold knows that he could have been in that trench himself. The scene perfectly encapsulates the almost childish impulses of war and how the fantasy dissolves. The entire film, in fact, lays bare the debauchery and depravity of bored men on the brink of extinction.