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The Captain

THE CAPTAIN (Der Hauptmann) Robert Schwentke , D/F/PL 2017, 118 min

World premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 9th.
In Competition at the San Sebastian Film Festival on September 29th.




The end of World War II is in sight and the social structure of Germany lies in tatters.  As the Wehrmacht's morale begins to deteriorate and regiments begin to disintegrate, the number of deserters climbs so dramatically that any soldier found separated from his company may be shot as a traitor. Anarchy and arbitrary murder completely replace law and order.

One band of officers hunts down a 19-year-old private – deadly horseplay  more than any kind of organized pursuit.
The private, WILLI HEROLD, bolts through the woods. Desperate, running out of time.

By sheer luck, Herold escapes from his hunters and goes to ground – pursued by the local farmers he steals from to survive and by his fellow soldiers who want him dead – through the bleak and barren moors of the Ems river estuary.
Soaked through, worn out, half starved, and nearly frozen to death, Herold makes a pivotal find: the uniform of some highly decorated Luftwaffe captain.

Robert Schwentke's director’s statement

Almost 70 years after the fact, the harsh brutalities of World War II still elicit incomprehension and dismay. By present-day standards, the violent acts committed seem abnormal, psychopathic, horrific.

But horror is a moral, not an analytical concept.

In order to explain Willi Herold’s actions we have to understand the world he lived in and not just our own world. We need to go beyond mere moral responses and experience the world from his point of view. Non-morally, so to speak, see what he saw, feel what he felt.

Our audience needs to experience Herold’s historical, psychological and social reality directly, viscerally, emotionally. This story won’t be told from the outside in, but from the inside out. We will fully immerse the audience in Herold’s state of mind.

Our goal is not to justify or forgive Herold’s actions by contextualizing them, or worse: by introducing a moral relativism -- but to understand the frame of reference which made these actions possible and so arrive at the general through the specific:

Herold’s highly particularized perspective of a specific historical event allows us to glimpse a universal truth about the human condition in wartimes -- past and present.

Why tell this story? Because: “Through the past we comprehend the present, and through the present we prepare for the future.” (Arno Schmidt).

In psychological terms, the inhabitants of the Third Reich were as normal as people in all other societies at all other times. The spectrum of perpetrators was a cross section of normal society and no specific group of people proved immune to the temptation, in Günther Anders’s phrase, of “inhumanity with impunity.”

They are us. We are them. The past is now.

 

An interview with director Robert Schwentke about THE CAPTAIN

Interview: Toby Ashraf

THE CAPTAIN is set during the last days of WW II and is based on the real-life character of Willi Herold. When did you first get the idea of turning his story into a fiction film?

National Socialism was a dynamic system – it took a great many people for this cultural catastrophe to occur. I was interested in the back row of perpetrators. Some were ideologically driven, others were opportunists, legitimized thugs, or simply got out of the way of evil. These were not the architects of the system they served, but the people who lived next door to you - the “little people” who kept the Nazi system alive and going. I knew I wanted to make a movie from the perspective of these perpetrators and I so I started to search for a suitable story.

So at first, there was the idea to make a film about the phenomenon of a generation, and Willi Herold’s story offered itself to you later, so to speak?

Yes.

What fascinated you about the perspective of the perpetrators, since it bears the risk to make the villain the hero and tell a film through the eyes of someone who is very difficult to identify with?

It confronts the audience with a different set of propositions than a movie that allows them to graft onto a morally upright character. We all hope and imagine that we would have been morally upright and brave enough to oppose the system. But history and the facts don’t bear that out. I wanted there to be no explicit moral compass, forcing the audience to find their own point of view, to ask themselves “What would I have done?” We are standing close to the abyss again and it is important to confront it. Contemplate our own limitations, strengths and beliefs – not to pretend it is going to resolve itself.

THE CAPTAIN is your first period picture. How long and specific was your research concerning set design, scenography, costumes and such?

Once I had come across the story of Willi Herold, I tried to figure out how to make it into a film and what kind of film I wanted it to be. What would be my movie about violence and the German National Socialist past? I realised that I had to do a lot of research and read books on history and psychology, diaries and novels by the meter…trying to find the answer to: “How could this have happened?”

I read the last remaining file on the case at the state archives in Oldenburg and visited the Gedenkstätte Esterwegen - the Emsland workcamp memorial - where a former prisoner had built a miniature of the camp from memory. The proportions were purposefully inaccurate: towers were too tall, fences too thick, the gate impossibly solid – a subjective, not factual view of the past. It affected me more deeply and rang truer than a proper scale model would have. Even though The Captain is not told through the perspective of the victims, this kind of experiential view of the past became a guiding principle for me and inspired me to make the movie with a level of abstraction.

How did that insight change your perception of Willi Herold’s character then?

To be honest: In a way the more I learned the less I understood, and I came to the conclusion that it’s not about trying to analyse who the character of Willi Herold is or to apply terminologies from clinical psychology. Whenever I tried to put a name to it, it felt reductive, pat. I decided everybody needed to make up their own mind about who Willi Herold is and why he did what he did. There is an intentional blank spot at the centre of the character that allows the audience to find their own answers.

Did that idea change over the course of writing the script?

It crystallized but there is still something that startles me to the degree that I can’t explain at all. What’s happening in the world right now, sadly, is helping me understand how easily democracy can be subverted, used and abused. There are certain conditions required for atrocities and genocide to occur. It starts with the rhetoric. Dehumanize the opponents. Create a them against us situation. Then we are told that the rules of civilization no longer apply. Killing is OK. This goes hand in hand with the legitimization of crimes committed.

Would you call THE CAPTAIN in any way an authentic period film?

I am not a fan of the “fetishism of authenticity” which is a wonderful phrase German film critic Cristina Nord once used when she talked about how German films about the Nazi past have all essentially become the equivalent of British heritage movies. The fallacy is that if you get the costumes and the car details right, you get the time right. But since none of the people involved in making the film were alive at the time, and all we can do is to research and look at photos and films of the time and read up about it, this so-called recreation of reality is pure artifice. History is a look back from a specific present with its particular biases and preoccupations. I never wanted to pretend this wasn’t the case. Of course, we got all the uniforms right since THE CAPTAIN is a movie about uniforms. But we took a lot of liberties with everything else. I wanted to make sure that there was a layer of abstraction in everything we did. Sets, acting, tone.

Talking about your cast: Making this film must have been quite a challenge for them, especially for your young main actor Max Hubacher. How did you prepare your actors for this very specific setting and how did you work with them?

I think a lot of it was set by the script. If you look at some movies that deal with violence, brutality and the darker side of humanity, most of them give you a little hole, through which you can escape - be it humour or be it the one character you can grab on to. My script didn’t have any of that—it didn’t let you off the hook. I think this idea was very clear to everyone involved when they read the script.

What kind of experience did the actors have during the shoot?

Every one of the actors fell apart at some point - mostly while we were shooting in the camp. Max Hubacher, who plays Willi Herold, went into shock when we shot his visit to the dentention barracks, with all the prisoners present. Bernd Hölscher, who plays Schütte, started to cry after his character shoots the prisoners in the pit. We never showed them, but there were always people in the pit and I had instructed them to beg for their lives - some did it so successfully that after I said “Cut”, Bernd Hölscher just started to weep. It was very hard for him to continue shooting that night. I went into shock a when Milan Peschel’s character walked across the (invisible) dead bodies in the pit. It got us all at a certain point.

Did you rehearse much with your actors?

We did extensive rehearsals for several weeks. Neither the tone of the film nor the acting is naturalistic. We needed to calibrate the tone and the intentions to make sure that we didn’t tilt too far into one or the other direction. The actors worked really, really hard to walk that line.

It’s the first film you ever shot in black-and-white. What was the idea behind that decision?

There is a story that Martin Scorsese shot tests for RAGING BULL in colour and showed them to Michael Powell who said – I’m paraphrasing: “You cannot make this film with all its blood in colour, people won’t be able to look past the blood, past the red. You need to make this film black-and-white!” This struck me as amazingly astute in terms of how audiences perceive violence in film and I thought: We have such a bloody tale here, I need people to somehow not be completely blocked and repelled. It was also an intuitive choice because I know the past mostly through black-and-white photographs. The third reason was aesthetics: I wanted the film to have an abstract quality. There is an intentional theatricality to the film and the black-and-white  suited that better than colour.

You live and work both in the USA and in Germany. Do you expect audiences to react differently to your film?

It’s hard to predict, but Germans haven’t seen these kinds of characters in a German film. I think there is going to be a bit of a cognitive dissonance that American audiences for example might not experience. It’s the same way that we watch 12 YEARS A SLAVE differently than Americans do. It’s just a difference in culture.

 

Nazi perpetrator, center-stage by Olaf Möller

The end of World War II was a traumatic experience for the vast majority of the German population living in the Reich, as well as those serving in its armed forces abroad. Today, we might like to believe that people simply must have happily rejoiced over the end of Nazism and the advent of peace. In reality, the majority of Germans might have whole-heartedly abhorred the extremes of Nazi politics but were otherwise in accord with their core beliefs, prejudices, aims and incentives. For them, thus, the end of World War II meant defeat, loss of territory, occupation, and subjugation under foreign laws, yet no end to the most immediate problems: the lack of housing and scarcity of food. Simply put: most Germans felt vanquished, not liberated. Look at newsreel material from that period and see the mix of exhaustion, fear and hate in so many faces…

Long before May 8th, 1945, it was clear that the war would be lost. If we take the defeat of the Reich’s armed forces first at Stalingrad on February 2nd, 1943, then in the Battle of Kursk (“Operation Citadel”) on July 16th, 1943, as the great twin turning point, it would take another 22 months for things to end. Two years is a long time for a society to unravel, for an army to disintegrate... Come April 1945, there is little left that holds things together. Instead, times are determined by safe self-interest and short-term alliances - whatever helps you survive.

This is the world of Willi Herold, a young soldier who stopped caring and would do whatever it takes to see another dawn. Willi played along. Willi liked the role he took on when wearing that career soldier’s captain uniform. Willi relished being feared. Willi made the savage heart of fascism flesh and ashes with his crimes. Willi is a con man, a looter, and a mass murderer. As portrayed by Robert Schwentke, Willi Herold is scared for his own life while callous about anybody else’s worldly existence. He is a man of quick wit, adaptability and learning abilities, living in a world eager to believe in anything or anyone. All people needed was the promise to get a problem solved, get food on the table or get a girl into bed. And Willy tried to oblige.

Willi Herold is also a man more calculating and ruthless characters like Kipinski might attach themselves to, the same way that more hapless and helpless types like Freytag try to stay out of harm’s way in his company.

Maybe Willi Herold was a psychopath – maybe he was just a man of his time. What he was not, is an exception, a singular occurrence, for there were more than 400 cases of crimes in nature (if not necessarily in scale) similar to those committed by Herold and his flying drumhead. Willi Herold is a character most decidedly worthy of our attention.

And yet, German cinema has not yet seen a character like Willi Herold, certainly not centre-stage. This is not surprising, considering how few FRG films in general there are about soldiering during the spring of 1945. On the other hand, some of the most famous works of West Germany’s post-war cinema are either set in that period or at least relate to it. And so is (at least) one classic of East German cinema, Konrad Wolf’s epochal I was Nineteen (Ich war neunzehn, 1968). But let’s leave the GDR’s film production aside here, since it followed very different ideological (as well as artistic) parameters which eventually vanished with the state itself. In a German context, The Captain (Der Hauptmann) refers to the cinema of the so-called Bonn Republic (1949-1990), for it is at this film culture’s fringes, just out of sight, that Willi Herold always lurked.

The earliest important example of a war movie set during the first months of 1945 is probably Paul May’s 08/15 at Home (08/15 in der Heimat,1955), which is the final chapter of a vastly successful trilogy. The film follows (fictive) Wehrmacht PFC Herbert Asch throughout World War II, starting at basic training and ending in the chaos of early 1945. German audiences would understand that the main character’s name is an ironic corruption of the German word “Arsch” (meaning: arse), as PFC “Arse” was a common term for the ordinary soldier, meaning the millions of men every armed force’s corps is made of. In short: Asch was the German Word War II soldier. In 08/15 at Home, Herbert Asch is anticipating the end of the war, tired of fighting, while trying to prevent some Nazis from going underground with a treasure of platinum. Asch is a decent guy, just like one of his commanding officers who doesn’t fight captivity during the US-American occupation. He assumes responsibility for his deeds and accepts his failure both as a soldier and a citizen. In that respect 08/15 at Home is the complete opposite of The Captain. In Paul May’s film, there is good and bad, always clearly separated. In Robert Schwentke’s film, evil comes in all shades, some of which might have their useful or even helpful aspects. In Paul May’s film, the crime is spectacular and singular, in Robert Schwentke’s film, it’s manifold, ranging from the petty to the outrageously horrible.

There couldn’t be a Willi Herold in Bonn Republic cinema, especially not during its early years, since the common soldier serving the Wehrmacht, the Reichsmarine or the Luftwaffe on German screens eventually had to be portrayed as the good guy for political and commercial reasons: While the Adenauer government (1949-1963) needed the image of an essentially honourable Wehrmacht to justify the founding of West Germany’s new armed forces, the Bundeswehr, local film producers and distributors were in need of characters their audience would want to identify with. which for the male viewers meant ao. soldier types that reassured them of their moral rectitude, as well as their suffering’s meaningfulness. The bad ones were invariably Nazis which meant party members in positions high and low, Gestapo (= secret police) operatives, as well as soldiers from the party’s own forces like SA or SS.

Even troublemakers like the great director Wolfgang Staudte respected this unwritten rule in his two main films that (partly) play during the end of World War II and deal with soldiers. The satire Roses for the Prosecutor (Rosen für den Staatsanwalt, 1959), set partly in April 1945, has the former grunt Rudi Kleinschmidt sentenced to death by an overzealous army judge for stealing a package of chocolates. Thanks to an aerial attack, Kleinschmidt gets away – only to meet his tormentor again years later in a now “denazified” Germany, where he can take his revenge. The realist drama The Fair (Kirmes,1960) shows a deserter getting betrayed by just about everybody in his home village out of fear for reprisals. In both films, it’s the body politic that fails and needs to be looked at critically, not the armed forces as such. That perspective Wolfgang Staudte would explore with his sardonic tragedy Destination Death (Herrenpartie, 1964), one of the very few works of that period to look at perpetrators from various ranks of the military.

 If cinema or television dealt with those who committed war crimes at all, the films would look at the architects and head administrators of genocide, the upper echelon. Theodor Kotulla’s Death Is My Trade (Aus einem deutschen Leben 1977), a Rudolf Höss biopic by way of Robert Merle’s novel Death Is My Trade (La mort est mon métier, 1952), or Heinz Schirk’s teleplay detailing the Final Solution’s decisive discussion, The Final Solution: The Wannsee Conference (Die Wannseekonferenz, 1984) are good examples. And yet, a Hitler equivalent for Carlo Lizzani’s wry, dry and decidedly myth-proof Mussolini: The Last Four Days (Mussolini ultimo atto, 1974) has yet to be made…

No German film so far has shown the totality of Nazi Germany’s collective collapse at the final stage of World War II the way The Captain does: as a free-for-all, dog-eat-dog world where civilians and soldiers, party functionaries and state administrators are willing to see everybody else get maimed or murdered – as long as it gets them through to the end alive. And If a little profit can be turned by ripping off the state or one’s neighbour – even better. Here, the prospect of getting reimbursed for injuries not suffered and imaginary losses incurred gets you a roast with dumplings, the prospect of seeing a judicial dilemma solved (by mass execution) gets you honours and a roof over your head.

The two closest relatives for The Captain, both similarly based on true crimes, are again to be found in 50s German cinema: Helmut Käutner’s comedy with melancholic linings, The Captain from Köpenick (Der Hauptmann von Köpenick,1956) and Robert Siodmack’s The Devil Strikes at Night (Nachts, wenn der Teufel kam, 1957). The Captain from Köpenick shows another common man who puts on a captain’s uniform – only that cobbler Wilhelm Voigt is a loveable fellow and a petty criminal whose con exposes Prussia’s militaristic-authoritarian heart in all its ridiculous absurdity. The Devil Strikes at Night, then, was the lone local example of a war noir: Siodmack details the hunt for a serial killer whose existence the Nazis want to cover up, even if that means getting rid of the cop investigating the case.

Willi Herold also exposes the absurdities of bureaucracy, and how to best abuse them, which ends not in laughter but in a mass grave. Befitting this tale of homicidal fury, The Captain looks like a film noir storyboarded by Flemish woodcut artist Frans Masereel: all expressionistic angles, trance-like acting, many an eerie silence blown up by sudden splashes of acidic humour, with the occasional stab of a gruesome and wise surrealism. When during the punk-fuelled final credits, Willi Herold and his merry band of mass murderers wreck symbolic havoc in a small town in present-day Germany and play pranks on perplexed passers-by, something long suppressed in German film history finally breaks free.

Historical research has long shown how easily people from each walk of life, class and stratum could succumb to the darkness of war and become part of a mass murdering detail, be turned into torturers and killers, rob and rape, or just take advantage of other people’s willingness to do all this and worse. With the story of Willi Herold in The Captain, German cinema finally acknowledges the true horror of war: human frailty, and a will for indifference when it comes to the suffering of other human beings.

 

 

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