No doubt about it: it’s kinda exciting to get in on the ground floor of a classic. And that’s what those attending Cinepocalypse 2018 have had a chance to do with Robert Schwentke’s THE CAPTAIN. The rest of the country can get in on the action starting on July 27.
And action, if you’ll pardon the segue, is something that THE CAPTAIN has plenty of — though it usually occurs in the mode of hunting and execution rather than anything resembling a fair fight. (Some of the worst violence occurs offscreen and, like any good director, Schwentke makes those moments even more harrowing.) The film literally hits the ground running, and you’ll be forgiven the thought that German private Willi Herold, our title character, won’t survive long enough to find the abandoned uniform that makes him our title character. When he does, yes, the script does tour through some of the impersonation tropes you’ve seen in countless movies and TV shows. There are the bluffs and the counterbluffs, and moreover there is the perennially compelling theme of wearing a mask so long that it gradually becomes one’s face. So while at first Herold may have to worry constantly about how convincing he is, just watch out, because later on it becomes impossible to convince him he is not a captain.
Along the way we’re treated to an unforgettably nightmarish tale, episodic in its telling in a way that recalls Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird, or The Tin Drum, or Klimov’s horrifying masterwork COME AND SEE. As one might imagine, there are high-stakes cat-and-mouse games with the rest of the Nazi military bureaucracy, and the stakes only seem to increase as the events become more farcical. Yet underneath every exchange, the sound of every gun fired, is character development and psychological insight — and not just into Herold, but those around him, his troops, and those he comes in conflict with. And underneath all of that is the expected thematic conflict of physical survival versus moral (or some would say, spiritual) survival. At one point Herold rationalizes an impending atrocity out loud, saying, “They’re dead anyway.” And while it’s not true that at this point one would agree with him — I often hoped he would display just as much ingenuity in saving others as saving himself—it’s a testament to Schwentke’s command of his story in all its dimensions that one can see how Herold would both arrive at his nihilism and, even with good intentions here and there, take actions that ultimately self-fulfill it. He’s an example of the going-along-to-get-along approach to life and politics carried to terrifying extremes.
But THE CAPTAIN doesn’t hit you over the head with such themes, or tiresomely indulge in messaging its relevancy. It’s too busy being engaged with its emotional depth, its stunning black-and-white cinematography (there are even some James Whale-type sequences early on), and its superior acting. So, yeah, a classic. See it and tell me I’m wrong. What you’ll encounter is a series of really good scenes interrupted only by truly great scenes, and those interruptions are not infrequent.
Tags: Alexander Fehling, Bernd Holscher, Britta Hammelstein, Cinepocalypse, Cinepocalypse 2018, Drama, Festivals, Florian Ballhaus, Frederick Lau, Germany, History, Marko Dyrlich, Max Hubacher, Milan Peschel, Robert Schwentke, Samuel Finzi, Sascha Alexander Gersak, Waldemar Kobus, War, Wolfram Koch