Twenty-six years before the infamous Stanford prison experiment revealed how quickly figures of authority can collapse individuals' moral framework, there was Willi Herold, a German WWII deserter who found a decorated captain's uniform and transformed himself from hunted soldier to marauding punisher. Director Robert Schwentke explores Herold's exploits in the final days of the war in his off-kilter drama The Captain. Filmed in black and white in the wintry countryside of Görlitz, Germany, Schwentke's vision of a man who would be posthumously named the Executioner of Emsland is chilling and yet almost farcical.
In the opening scene, Herold (Max Hubacher) seems an innocent baby face running for his life from the Nazis. Schwentke immediately endeared me to Herold, an underdog you can root for. But the moment Herold finds a Nazi captain's uniform in the back of an abandoned car, his chubby cheeks seem slimmer somehow, his cheekbones more pronounced, his back straightened, as though he's dropped whatever weight of hunger and fear had once hunched him over. Hubacher's performance is a masterful physical feat.
The film is a psychological exploration of fascism's roots in the cowardly human heart. Herold begins collecting a misfit team of fellow deserters and military goons looking for one last kill and a strong-armed leader, and Herold grows more and more comfortable in that role. He sees how others admire him when he executes a looter; he craves more of that approval. Herold as the captain is never sympathetic, but his behavior -- goaded by a gang of psychopaths under duress as their world crumbles around them -- is nearly predictable; if his newfound crew longs for bloodshed, he will give it to them.