Wednesday 12 September 2018

The Captain (Germany/Poland 2017: Dir Robert Schwentke)

One of the many shocking things about Robert Schwentke's The Captain is that it was directed by someone previously responsible for such diverse fare as The Time Traveller's Wife (2009), old timer action movie RED (2010) and two instalments of the Divergent series (Insurgent in 2015 and Allegiant in 2016).

Not that there was anything wrong with any of those films, despite sharing a consistent air of slightness; but there's not a whiff of slightness in his latest offering.

In Germany, in the last two weeks before the end of the Second World War, Will Herold (a startling performance by the 25 year old Swiss actor Max Hubacher) is on the run, having become separated from his platoon. Cold, tired and hungry, he's on the lookout for somewhere to shelter - and to avoid a posse of soldiers on the watch for deserters, headed by the vicious Junker - when he sees an abandoned vehicle on the road. The truck's contents include the clothes of a captain of the German army, which Herold dons, swapping them for his grubby attire. In a matter of moments Herold has transformed himself convincingly into a figure of authority, just in time to meet another approaching soldier, Freytag. Herold's air of superiority is so convincing that Freytag immediately announces himself lost and, presenting his papers, asks to be attached to the 'captain'.

And so begins Herold's (short lived) rise to infamy, as he maintains his disguise and, by sheer bravado and cunning, builds up a small army of deserters and thugs; the self named 'Task Force Herold.' Challenged at checkpoints, Herold bluffs his credentials, explaining that he and his men are on a special mission, ordered by the Führer himself, to study morale at the front line. Using this story he gains access to a detention camp for soldiers of the Wehrmacht accused of desertion or insubordination, and establishes a power base, taking the law into his own hands and executing around 90 prisoners without due process. Attempts to thwart him by the camp's warden are scuppered when high command, despite knowing nothing about Herold, endorse his approach. The fake Captain is free to exercise his power freely without further challenge, even when he runs into Junker again, who can't quite seem to place him.

"The situation is always what you make of it," a line in The Captain, summarises the film perfectly. Lest that might seem like an entrepreneurial thumbs up for Herold's activities, Robert Schwentke has mentioned in interview that in part he made this movie as a reminder, particularly in these challenging times, that, as John Stuart Mill once wrote, ‘Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.’ It's also worth bearing in mind when watching the appalling events unfold in the movie that this is based on a true story, a fact which says a lot about the state of Germany at the end of the Second World War.

There are several moments in The Captain that are very hard to take - Schwentke shot the film in black and white - with superb photography by Florian Ballhaus - partly because he felt that in colour the gore would be too distracting, and the film wallows in mud, degradation and emotional torture throughout its length. But, and rather like some of Michael Haneke's early films (which The Captain reminded me of), the grimmest moments are off camera, where the mind fills in the blanks; the sounds of (unseen) prisoners, dying in trenches which they have dug themselves, is truly harrowing.

Curiously there's also a very dark thread of humour running through the film, not least the bizzare sight of Herold, in a uniform slightly too big for him, calling the shots. In an early scene, Herold, newly uniformed, walks into a tavern to a sea of disinterested faces who have had their fill of National Socialism, only to have them collectively shouting 'Heil Hitler' moments later after he promises to restore goods and money stolen from them by soldiers. Also, the attempts to curtail Herold's activities in the camp, where phone calls are made and bluffs are called, are comically absurd. But in the end this is a film whose horror emanates from its basis in fact, and where the humanity behind the characters' eyes is gradually extinguished as events move from the improbable to the possible. As a movie set in Germany and directed by a native of that country, it is perhaps a surprising subject choice for a film, a brave and unflinching slice of history.

The Captain is out in the UK on DVD and Digital HD from 1st October.

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