“Everyone gets their due.”
The power of authority is at the center of The Captain, a German film from Robert Schwentke. But the authority in the film is based in a lie. In spite of that, the authority is perceived as real by everyone involved.
Based on a true story, the film is set in the last two weeks of World War II. Willi Herold (Max Hubacker) is a deserter who barely escapes MPs. He exists by looting farms. When he comes upon a disabled car he finds an officer’s luggage and puts on the uniform and begins to take on the persona of an officer. Freytag (Milan Peschel), another soldier separated from his unit (or maybe another deserter), attaches himself to Herold as his driver and aide. When they come upon other soldiers checking papers, Herold acts aloof and claims to be on orders from Hitler himself. Although he has no proof, no one is willing to challenge him. Soon he gathers a group of soldiers (mostly other deserters) around him. He is essentially a con man who takes advantage of people’s fear.
Ironically, he is called on to deal with a deserter who has been caught looting. To prove his power he executes the deserter. That is the beginning of a spree that will become increasingly violent and sadistic. He and his cohort come to a detention camp filled with deserters. Even though the camp authorities have their doubts, Herold sets up his own brand of summary justice, killing scores with great cruelty. Later Herold and his band move to a nearby town where they continue their lawlessness in the name of the law.
Of course, as viewers we understand just how empty Herold’s authority is. Yet, for those he encounters, it is hard for them to doubt the things he says, even though he has no written proof of anything. Just because he wears that uniform and acts as though he has been given power by the highest authority, people will do as he commands.
However, from time to time we see Freytag, who often tries to stay in the background, as he watches Herold play out his role. Freytag, unlike the other soldiers following Herold, is disapproving of the cruelty. It may be that viewers will want to identify with Freytag and his sense of horror at what he sees happening. But the question the film wants to ask is to what extent do we also stand and watch, while doing nothing to stop what is obviously wrong?
Although it is important to note the historical context of the film, we should not simply think that the cruelty of the Third Reich would make this seem acceptable for the various people that encountered Herold. For the most part, the German people of that time were not much different from the people we encounter each day. They are all just trying to get through the ups and downs of life as we are. When something terrible takes place, we may be disgusted—perhaps even angry—at what we see taking place, but are hesitant to step in and challenge the authority of those doing such things. During the end credits, we see Herold and his gang of thugs in a modern setting, reminding us that this film speaks to today.
Photos courtesy of Music Box Films.