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A grim black-and-white depiction of fascist cruelty is about as far of a 180 that you can get from helming installments of the Divergent franchise, but that’s perhaps what Robert Schwentke needed to do in order to get his creative energies back on track. Schwentke, a German native, has spent the better part of the last 15 years in Hollywood making often interminable drek (anybody remember Flightplan?). Yet he re-establishes himself as a filmmaker gifted with a decent array of talents and the skill to use them with Der Hauptmann, or The Captain, an engrossing horror-drama about the mask — or, well, the uniform — of sanity and what happens when it’s given the legal authority to slip.
Based on the true story of war criminal Willi Herold (played here masterfully by Max Hubacher) and set in Nazi Germany in the final days of the Third Reich, The Captain begins with Herold in a state of panic, fleeing a group of Nazi officers who want to shoot him for sport because he’s a deserter. He manages to evade his executioners, and through some sort of luck, stumbles upon the abandoned car of a Luftwaffe captain and, inside, the officer’s uniform. Herold dresses up in it and immediately begins fantasizing about the symbolic power that uniform could contain, and soon discovers that it still does, thanks to Freytag (Milan Peschel), a lost soldier who becomes his right-hand man. The “Captain” accumulates a squad of deserters, to become his “Task Force,” and through sheer circumstance, the group winds up at a Work Camp. Herold’s authority goes perpetually unchallenged and, finally, when given the authority, he becomes responsible for the deaths of a whole lot of people — deserters and criminals, just like himself.
It may, at first, seem like Schwentke’s attempting to drive a wedge between “chaotic evil” and “lawful evil” Nazis at points in the film, as if to suggest there’s ultimately a difference, but his ending completely and totally repudiates that assumed thesis. Instead, we’re given a glimpse of power gone truly mad, wielded by a pauper who, through total luck, wound up dressed like a prince. And Herold has the imagination of someone who has never been in control of anything, with grand sweeping gestures that usually involve the deaths of many, and those are often done in the cruelest of fashions, including the horrifying usage of an anti-aircraft gun in his violence. He indulges the worst aspects of these evil men by giving them the lawful excuse they need to in order to inflict as much pain as they possibly can, and occasionally we see glimpses of the powerless man within break through the facade and look in shock at his capacity for evil. Credit must be given to Hubacher, who skillfully manages these dueling emotions, and provides an ink-blot test of a lead.
Despite the occasional formal hiccup (a mid-film flash forward breaks through some of the tension in a way that isn’t tonally supported sticks out like a sore thumb) and an over-reliance on some cliches — best illustrated here — when it comes to suspense, The Captain fits comfortably in a pseudo-genre that seems to be coming back into vogue thanks to today’s political climate, one which depicts the endless cruelty of fascists-in-power as they verge on becoming powerless.
Pasolini’s Salo (which is briefly echoed here, but never equalled in its extremity) is obviously the forbearer of these films, but Schwentke’s sentiments lie closer to that of Oliver Hirschbiegal’s in Downfall, in its depiction of people needing to cling to a power structure as their world goes down the tubes for their own sanity, for some measure of control. Because what comes after all this is the grim horror of being forced to acknowledge what you’ve done, and an appointment with the executioner will follow.