THE CAPTAIN (Der Hauptmann)
Music Box Films
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Robert Schwentke
Screenwriter: Robert Schwentke
Cast: Max Hubacher, Milan Peschel, Frederick Lau, Bernd Holscher, Waldemar Kobus
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 7/17/18
Opens: July 27, 2018
Movies about impersonation could be as contemporary and witty as Fred Schepsi’s 1993 “Six Degrees of Separation,” based on John Guare’s 1990 play involving a young black man who shows up on the doorstep of a rich couple pretending to have an involvement with the family that could offer him a chance at the good life. Or you can look at Danile Vigne’s “The Return of Martin Guerre,” taking place in medieval France where villagers challenge the story of a man who claims to have returned from the army. Joseph Losey’s “Monsieur Klein” focuses on a Roman Catholic who takes advantage of Jews needing to sell art work and is avenged by another, a Jewish Mr. Klein, who in 1942 seeks to make authorities think that the lout is himself Jewish. On the subject of Nazis, we now have Robert Schwentke’s “The Captain” from a director whose “Tattoo” involves a veteran cop and a rookie who are looking for a serial killer who murders people with tattoos and skins them, so he’s not all about making comedies. Yet there is something darkly comic about his latest project, taking place in Germany in April 1945 during the last two weeks of the war. At this point, the Germans all agree that the battle is lost, and an increasing number of ordinary soldiers are deserting, leaving the sinking ship. They are afraid, they are hungry, they are pursued by both military police and the regular army, in some cases shot on sight as they run and try to hide.
The film is in black and white except for a few moments to highlight an important change in the topography years after the war and to introduce us to the cast and some of the crew of the almost two-hour drama. When Willi Herold (Max Hubacher), a private in the Wehrmacht, dodges bullets of the loyal soldiers and successfully hides, he might wonder how long he can get away with his rogue behavior. Happily, he finds that a captain who has been killed left behind a neatly pressed uniform in his Mercedes. He puts it on, and except for the pants which are too long, he looks almost like a real captain, though at the age of twenty-one he might give soldiers pause.
The theme of the picture, that given the right attire changes a man’s character, may remind you of East German playwright Bertolt Brecht’s view on that subject. Nor is Shakespeare a slouch on that subject, for didn’t he say “the apparel oft proclaims the man”? Schwentke’s film highlights Private Herold, who, in his uniform of the dead captain not only gets soldiers to give him immediate authority, but more important changes his own view of himself. Though actually a deserter, he will act in scenes that make him so contemptuous of deserters that he has no problem ordering “his men” to gun them down, even though the executions are carried out without the due process of court martials that other German officers insist upon. In the movie’s most gruesome scene, he has 90 deserters dig a trench and then, linking them up in groups of 30, he orders men to gun them down with an anti-aircraft gun, and then to proceed to the ditch with automatic rifles to make sure everyone is dead.
Captain Herold throughout refuses to show his papers, telling interrogators that he is under direct orders from the Fuehrer to check out conditions behind the front lines. Wouldn’t any Nazi with half a brain realize that Hitler was not about to order a mere captain to take on this mission, much less a 21-year-old? Yet he gets away with his scam throughout in a story that involves large groups of officers and soldiers actually celebrating the executions of ninety fellow German, drinking schnapps, looting, whoring and the like. Of all the soldiers, he speaks the least, fearful, perhaps, that he might be caught in his impersonation and indeed, there are two soldiers who smile at the “captain” as though winking at the movie audience to show that they know what’s up. The film includes intra-mural brawls though there is no ground action against the British who show up only once to strafe the shack sheltering the soldiers.
“Der Hauptmann” as this is called in the original German (the dialogue is wholly German with English subtitles), embodies various subgenres from the absurdism that might have found a home in the writings of Ionesco and Brecht, its comic touches asking the audience to embrace this clown of a scammer as though he were a hayseed way out of his class. Schwentke does not have time to tell us more about Willi Herold, his background seemingly unimportant and even a point that would take him away from his act as an Everyman. Those filmgoers with a particular interest in World War II—and there’s no shortage year after year of films depicting every crevice of the subject—will find “The Captain” appealing, including the comic touches of the soldiers in a shelter who seem to come out of the comic 1953 TV drama “Stalag 17.”
Unrated. 118 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B
Acting – B
Technical – B+
Overall – B+