By Sergey Toymentsev.
German-born director Robert Shwentke is mostly known for his glossy, action-packed Hollywood blockbusters, including RED, R.I.P.D, and two Divergent installments. But this time he turns to his German roots and offers a sleek black comedy about the final days of World War II from the perspective of a Nazi soldier. Based on true events, The Captain is probably one of the strangest rags to riches stories in world cinema, in which German private Willi Herold (Max Hubacher), separated from his regiment, assumed the identity of a captain by simply wearing the captain’s uniform he found in an abandoned military vehicle and ordered the execution of over hundred inmates in a prison camp for captured deserters like himself. The Captain grotesquely reimagines Herold’s career from a pitiable deserter, chased by drunken Nazi soldiers across the field as if he were a moving target, to a powerful imposter claiming to be on a mission assigned by Adolf Hitler himself. Taken for a real Luftwaffe officer first by other wandering soldiers, desperately looking for a confident commander in chaos at the end of the war, and then by scared civilians, Willi turns out to be unable to resist the pleasure of such misrecognition from anyone he meets on his way. Yet to prove his fitness to the uniform he must shed blood without a blink of an eye, which exponentially amounts to a pile of corpses in a mass grave. The Captain forces the viewer to look at World War II through the eyes of the perpetrator and ponder over the origin of violence.
Captain is very much unlike your previous films. How did you become interested in making this film?
My tastes and interests are extremely eclectic. I’ve never allowed myself to be shelved in a drawer. I took a lot of hard lefts and hard rights. I worked with many genres and every time I tried to do something different. This time is obviously the most radical turn I’ve taken. I got interested in the story about twelve years ago. And I wanted to make a film about the dynamic structure of National Socialism, about the perpetrators, about its backbone, if you will. I was looking for the story actively and when I found it I felt it would allow me a different look at World War II, a different way to analyze the system of National Socialism.
Your film is based on the true story of Willi Herold. Did you spend time researching his case in archives? How close to the facts did you stay in the film?
The film is based on the last remaining court transcripts which I researched at the state archive in Oldenburg. Generally, the British military court system would destroy the files after certain amount of time. But this file was actually a copy that a survivor of Camp II [a prison camp for German deserters] had obtained. In addition to a copy of the court transcript, he also included his own diaries and letters and diaries of other people who had been in prison in Camp II. Some of them survived, some of them didn’t. Some of the dialogue in the film is taken directly from there. For example, in the court scene where the German military left him off the hook for what he’d done, every sentence is verbatim from those court transcripts. I did contract the scene and I made cuts, but nothing that’s been said in that scene wasn’t actually said. But we also have to consider that some of the story about Willi Herold we only know from Willi Herold himself and he is certainly an unreliable narrator. For example, how he found or stole the uniform, what he had actually done, was he a deserter or had he really just lost his battalion…. All those things we don’t really know for sure because, again, there is no evidence, one way or another. But as soon as he started this sort of reign of terror, there were plenty of witnesses to second the version of the court transcript.
What can you say about the visual style of the film as well as its soundtrack?
I struggle with historical narratives that are almost like amber-trapped. Because what it does is that it separates the past from the present in terms of relevance. And I don’t ever quite understand why you would make a historical film that has no relevance for today. It’s also a bit of a con job to do that because all history is written, viewed, and regarded from the present point of view. So you look back at history with a certain bias, with a certain interest, with certain preoccupations. History gets rewritten all the time. And look at it right now in America where American history is severely being rewritten. So we wanted to make a film but really tied to the fact that we are living today, that we were not alive back then and we are not trying to achieve a sort of recreation of the time then, which I would consider the “fetishism of authenticity.” But we are interested in learning something from the past. So the style of the film is decidedly modern; it is not a heritage style which you can see in a historical movie. It is a film that wants you to know that it was made today. For example, we have music that is possibly anachronistic but definitely unusual for a historical movie. We have the layer of abstraction in the imagery that is also pretty modern, I hope. As far as the black-and-white is concerned, I don’t think it would’ve been possible to watch this film in color due to the amount of blood in it. There is an anecdote about Martin Scorsese’s shooting Raging Bull’s screentests in color and showing them to Michael Powell, who is the absolute master of color in cinema. And this master of color told Scorsese that he can’t really shoot this film in color, that he needed to shoot it in black-and-white because people would not be able to actually look past the blood, they wouldn’t be able to look past the violence, and they wouldn’t understand that he made not a violent film but a film about violence. This is of course a very important distinction. So I thought I should do this in my film as well.
You do not provide much background of your protagonist, neither do you offer the psychological development or explanation of his character. Why is that?
I think psychology is not sometimes the right tool to explain the reasons for one’s actions. I felt that all psychological explanations for why he was doing what he was doing were pat, reductive, and simplistic. So I realized it was actually counter-productive to my goal, which was to trust the audience to whom I give great credit because I think they can invest something themselves into a film they see. My hope was by leaving an intentional white spot pertaining to psychology in the character of Herold would force the audience to leap forward and look for and find their own questions and answers. You know I think the character is pretty clear to me as far as he deals with situations he is faced with. He is very clearly drawn, he knows what his options are. But he is not explained away in clinical terms as sociopath or psychopath. And I don’t think he is any of those things, by the way. I don’t think he is a sadist; I don’t think he experienced joy at the pain of others. I think he was the guy who never heard the word “no,” which allowed him to progress to a point where he thought he could get away with anything. So that was a conscious choice for which there is no psychological explanation. Every other character in the film is, I think, psychologically very clearly located and defined. I hope that people understand that it was deliberate that we are not explaining Herold. Also I find it always curious that audiences look solely to the filmmaker for answers. I don’t think it’s necessarily always the job of the filmmaker to provide answers, especially in an experiment where you want the audience to be asking themselves those kinds of questions.
Due to the amount of the grotesque in your film, it could be viewed as a black comedy. What is the role of humor in it?
I think ridicule and humor in comedy are very useful in stripping authority to its petty core. And to me a lot of characters are ridiculous in the film and all systemic problems are absurd, where the fate of a hundred of prisoners is being debated only in terms of the office politics without the category of ethics involved at all. And that to me is extremely absurd. It was also necessary to have that point of view, in my opinion, because the film really comes without a moral manual, at least a verbalized moral manual. I mean films, generally speaking, have a character who at some point takes a moral position, and it says what the filmmaker intends, which is what the audience wants to hear in terms of positioning the film morally. We don’t have that. We can’t achieve it through verbalization, so we have to achieve it through form and ridicule.
In one of your interviews, you mentioned that it was important for you to keep this film entertaining. Why did it matter for you to keep the movie about the perpetrator entertaining?
The movie wants to draw you along and keep you involved because it’s an experiential film, it’s not a naturalistic film. It’s a film that wants to keep you tethered to it because I feel it’s very easy to want to jump off that particular train. And I do want people to watch the film to the finish; I do not want them to walk out half way through. I think it’s a subject matter where people might be compelled to not want to stay till the end. So I was trying to make a film that keeps you involved to the degree where you stay with it. At the same time, though, I clearly also employed the Brechtian alienation technique when I cut to a color picture in a way that the audience actually thinks the movie is over. That was a counterpoint to the will to entertain. Because at that point it was important to me that people get thrown out of the movie for a moment, that they get disoriented, that they were not too involved emotionally, as I didn’t want them to get too close to the character for the rest of the film. So both of those things are true, and we tried to balance them.
You mentioned that The Captain comes from your original interest to make a movie about the perpetrator. But Willi Herold is not a typical perpetrator; he is more like a trickster with no stable identity. There were, however, plenty of typical wholeheartedly committed perpetrators during Word War II. So why did you decide to focus on Willi Herold? Is it because it is easier for the viewer to identify with him and, therefore, understand that anybody could be in his place? Might this generalization be viewed as an indirect justification of his actions?
I disagree entirely. It has nothing to do with justification. First of all, there is a wide spectrum of perpetrators shown in the film. It covers them from ideologically driven to criminal. It’s not just the story of a trickster, as you call it; it is a story of a system that also identifies the trickster in such outcomes. There are characters in the film who clearly understand that he is a fraud, and they still go along because they can use him. So there is an analytical component to the film also in terms of how the camp works and the overlap of responsibilities, which was unique in those camps in the north but it was not unique in the system that Nationalist Socialism had created. Because they always had that overlap of responsibilities so as to motivate people to do more than it was necessary, because they always had somebody they were competing with. So I don’t think the message of the film is thar “we are all evil and, therefore, this stuff happens all the time.” That would be nihilistic, you know, and it’s not a nihilistic film. I don’t believe that anything goes and anything is okay. And I don’t believe that no choice would matter. Clearly this is a movie about choices being made. And if one of the people involved in the massacre had made a different choice, the massacre could’ve been averted. And that’s the message of the film.
Sergey Toymentsev is Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics at Florida State University as well as Senior Researcher at Russian Institute for Advanced Studies, Moscow State Pedagogical University. He received his PhD in Comparative Literature from Rutgers University in 2014. He is currently working on his book manuscript entitled Deleuze and Russian Film, which offers a Deleuzean history of Soviet and Russian cinema from Eisenstein to Sokurov. His articles and reviews have appeared in Journal of Philosophy: A Cross-Disciplinary Inquiry, Comparative Literature Studies, Scope, Studies in Russian & Soviet Cinema, Film Criticism, KinoKultura and others.
Uncovering the Katyn Massacre Cover-up: An Interview with Piotr Szkopiak on The Last Witness