The Captain Movie Review
Willi Herold (Max Hubacher), a German army deserter, stumbles across an abandoned Nazi captain’s uniform during the last, desperate weeks of the Third Reich. Newly emboldened by the allure of a suit that he stole only to stay warm, Willi discovers that many Germans will follow the leader, whosoever that happens to be.
The first thing that will strike audiences is that the film is shot in black and white. What could be the reason for this? Is it symbolic, an allusion to ethics being more than “black and white”? Perhaps historical, a shorthand way to let us know we are in an older time period? Or maybe just an aesthetic choice? Regardless, this decision is a wise one and allows the film to stand out immediately. A good cinematographer can do more with black and white than most people can do with color. We see that here, in ways not unlike Rainer Sarnet’s “November” (2017).
According to the film’s creators, the movie is “a profound reminder of the consequences of social conformity and untrammeled political power” showing fascism as “a pathetic pyramid scheme, a system to be gamed by the most unscrupulous and hollow-souled.” This is a brilliant summary of both the plot and the film’s purpose. Indeed, we see the Nazi regime in its most basic form: a contingent of people who “follow the leader” under the misguided belief that they, too, will become great in the process. While Hitler and 1930s-40s Germany is the most obvious example, this is something we see again and again over the course of history. Because it works.
The two most famous psychology experiments of the 20th century both have parallels with the film. One is the “Obedience to Authority” experiment, wherein Stanley Milgram discovered that people will commit horrible acts simply because a person presumed to be in charge asked them to do so. The average German citizen of this film does the bidding of “the captain”, despite not knowing who he really is. The other is Zimbardo’s “Stanford Prison Experiment” where we find that by taking on a role (even in jest), we tend to become that role. Here, “the captain” quickly becomes the very thing he hated simple because he decides to play the role… and the lines blur between “acting” and “being”.
The most implausible part of the story is just how young “the captain” looks (the actor was roughly 24), but this only adds to the absurdity of war and the situation. Some might say the film is a black comedy? If it is, this is the blackest of all comedies. What could be seen as satire is just so harsh and brutal that the humor is hard to find. There is one final bit of absurdist comedy in the finale, something Kurt Vonnegut would have appreciated, which viewers will have to see for themselves.
“The Captain” played on June 25 at Cinepocalypse 2018 in Chicago. Though not really a “genre film”, it may be the best entry screening at the festival this year. Superb acting, impressive camerawork and an intense realism… this is right up there with the great Nazi-themed films of the past quarter century. Do not be surprised if this one takes its seat alongside “Schindler’s List” (1993) and “Downfall” (2004).