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New Release Review - THE CAPTAIN

the captain film review
At the end of WWII a German soldier's personality is transformed for the worse when he dons an officer's discarded uniform.

Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Robert Schwentke

Starring: Max Hubacher, Milan Peschel, Frederick Lau, Bernd Hölscher

the captain film poster

1945, the penultimate days of an annihilated Nazi Germany. The Großdeutsches Reich is all but ruined: a gothic landscape with the luxurious European marrow which we would normally associate with such a descriptor - warm candlelight, jewels, hidden riches - sucked from the now bare bones of dead trees, frozen soil and empty skies. Through this dead landscape, a small man scuttles for his life. In a sequence deliberately framed to invoke the lazy malice of fox hunting, he is pursued by a baying bunch of Nazis in a jeep. Shouting "Deserter!", they fire rifles at the poor lad, and you get the impression that they are near-missing on purpose, all the better to prolong the enjoyable cruelty of the chase. It’s an indulgence that ultimately works out for our boy, though (in textbook manipulation, and in the absence of any other narrative information, of course we identify with and support this underdog), as the soldier manages to secret himself within the soil and roots beneath a tree, just as any other frightened animal would. Disappointed, the mob eventually disappears and Herold (Max Hubacher) is finally alone in the wilderness. But not for long. He happens upon the abandoned transport of a dead Nazi captain, which holds firearms, food and a uniform. Before you can say Duke of Sussex, the deserter has donned the regalia, along with the requisite authoritarian attitude too. Upon wearing the pilfered clothes, Herold immediately becomes a monster far removed from the scared rabbit of seconds ago. Turns out that he is a bit like that dog in The Thing: the hunted will become the hunter. Herold really leans into his role, and soon he manages to take over a prisoner of war camp full of other deserters, an institution he administers with extreme prejudice.

the captain film review

Our initial sympathy for Herold and its subsequent wrong-footing is an ambiguity that makes up the film’s thematic foundations. Is it merely circumstances which define morality; wherever defining fate has placed Herold, or anyone else, within the oscillating extremes of a man-made dystopia? Robert Schwentke’s The Captain is a riveting accession to German pop-culture’s ongoing struggle to reconcile its horrific past, yet the universal questions it asks are ones that we can also apply to today, with the severe concern of right-wing groups gaining traction in Europe, and the dominance of thoughtless twitter mob-mentality a more trivial example of the seductive appeal of the perceived consensus. The natural ease with which Herold adapts to force and violence is mirrored by his nazi cohorts, who are steadfastly boring thugs to a man. As ever, these nazis are dull, automatically acting out monotone rhythms of barbarity and subsequent celebrations, peppered with their shitty, ridiculous little heel clicks and stiff salutations. The Captain portrays its charges as empty avatars of mankind’s worst, locked into an utterly senseless yet compulsive nihilism. Is this what the ruination of a world was for, the film asks, an unsustainable homeland and unviable infrastructure, with the ‘victors’ getting pissed nightly and mass murdering out of habit, killing simply to keep the game in play?

the captain film review

Florian Ballhaus’ monochrome cinematography provides a necessary remove from the brutality; a stand out sequence focusses on the massacre of prisoners in a trench, which is seen in obfuscating over-the-shoulder frames from the Nazi perspective; distanced mud and gore spraying the air as bullets tear the unarmed men apart. At this point in the war, Germany was on its arse, but yet, as is the wont of all evil, the violence and hatred it had appropriated was indefatigable, a cumulative dynamic that proved impossible to stop. When all of the prisoners are finally dead, the officers get drunk and beat each other up, and when this too loses its appeal for Herold, he concocts spurious reasons for executing his own officers. Of course, it is only a matter of time before the bigger boys then catch up with him, an exhausting, infinite cycle. The harsh key lighting which Ballhaus utilises to photograph the officers makes memento moris of them all.

the captain film review

It would be reassuring to think, writing this in perfect freedom with a day of joyous sybaritism in front of me, that The Captain is a cynical film, that its themes are redundant on this modern, sunny day and that people are for the most part inherently good and decent. That no one would really fall for the Milgram trick. That we can grow and learn. But the persuasive, sober cadences of The Captain prove difficult to throw off. Schwentke deliberately confronts any disassociation via a dizzying real life, gonzo style credit sequence which depicts the cast of his film in full Nazi get-up wandering modern day Görlitz and giving its denizens the same sort of bullying shit which their forebearers did just 73 years ago. Some challenge, but most simply acquiesce.

The Captain is in UK cinemas September 21st.



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