The chaos and anarchy of the last days of the Third Reich offer a glimpse at what Armageddon may be like. Rampant lawlessness, summary executions, overwhelming terror — and that’s before the enemy even shows up.
Such is the world rendered in “The Captain” by Robert Schwentke (“RED,” 2010 and “R.I.P.D,” 2013) in his adaptation of the true story of Willi Herold (Max Hubacher ), the so-called “Executioner of Emsland” (the region in northwest Germany where the events took place).
Shot in low contrast black-and-white, punctuated by close-ups and long shots of figures in a desolate landscape, the film’s first half presents a convincing portrayal of the breakdown of civilization. But the second half exaggerates the story’s intrinsic irony and absurdity into a crudely sardonic farce that offers little insight into what turns ordinary people into monsters — a theme as relevant today as it was in April 1945.
That’s when the 19-year-old Herold’s story begins. A deserter — wretched, ragged, and mud-caked — he flees a truck full of drunken German soldiers taking pot shots at him. Luckily, he not only escapes but comes across an abandoned staff car in which he finds a Luftwaffe captain’s uniform. He puts it on, assumes a haughty attitude, and that’s enough to convince most people of his authority, with the rest buying into his deception for their own ulterior motives.
Thus self-commissioned, he commandeers the stragglers he encounters to form Task Force Herold, claiming orders from the Fuehrer himself, with the vague mission to check out morale on the home front. His recruits include Freytag (Milan Peschel), a “Good Soldier Švejk”-like figure who serves as a barometer of common decency, and Kipinski (Frederick Lau), Freytag’s antithesis and the embodiment of barbarism.
Up to this point Herold is a sympathetic character, a rogue who flaunts authority like Gogol’s Inspector General. Then the mood darkens and grows murky when he commits his first murder to prove his credentials. However, the transition from scrappy survivor to cold-blooded killer passes quickly and without much soul-searching, Herold’s ambivalence is limited to the symbolism of Kipinski smiling slyly and Freytag frowning in dismay.
Not much insight there into how the unthinkable becomes routine. Instead, an underlying carnivalesque tone prevails when Herold manages to finagle his way into running a prison camp for deserters. What results is an unlikely cross between “Hogan’s Heroes” and “Grand Illusion” (1937) — that is, until Task Force Herold starts executing people with an anti-aircraft gun.
Though he belabors the obvious and sensationalizes the carnage and sadism, Schwentke is dealing with some relevant issues. He demonstrates the ease with which society can slip into fascism and an acceptance of atrocities (a message he undermines with an off-key end credits coda set in the present day). He also explores the possibility that tyranny is just a kind of play-acting, the catch being, as Kurt Vonnegut writes in his 1961 novel “Mother Night,” “We are what we pretend to be.” “The Captain” pretends to be a serious movie about the banality of evil; sometimes, despite itself, it is.
Written and directed by Robert Schwentke. Starring Max Hubacher, Milan Peschel, Frederick Lau. At Kendall Square. 118 minutes. Unrated (as R: black-comic atrocities). In German, with subtitles.