Chimney Sweep

Soldier turns into Nazi monster in ‘Captain’ – Boston Herald

Robert Schwentke’s devastating “The Captain”, a black and white widescreen film from World War II, is a diabolical variation on Nikolai Gogol’s classic “The Inspector General” from the 19th century.

Based on an astonishing true story of the “hangman of Emsland”, the film tells the story of Willi Herold (a great Max Hubacher), a very Aryan-looking, 19-year-old German soldier who pretends to be the captain of the air force in command of his three-axle service car, the two Weeks before the end of the war, gathered a gang of crazy Nazi murderers and wreaked havoc behind the lines. The real Willi, a chimney sweep by trade, was brought to justice by the British and guillotine executed after the war.

We meet Schwentke’s Willi for the first time when he is fleeing from other German soldiers who are chasing him and shooting him from an open truck, provided he’s a deserter. Willi hardly escapes, finds the company car with its uniform in a suitcase and puts it on, if only to warm up. But the impressively tailored garment soon takes over and transforms Willi into an officer with the commanding demeanor, voice and gestures of the Air Force elite. He even has a monocle.

Captain Herold and the diabolical gang he gathers enter a Nazi labor camp and pretend to be on a mission for the Furher himself to report on conditions behind the lines. After Herold and the other Nazi soldiers raised the bloodlust of one of the commanding officers and threw drunken dinner parties where starving prisoners provide entertainment and fighting breaks out and spreads across the premises, they execute most of the camp’s inmates.

“The Captain” is the story of a con man who leads a group of armed sociopaths in a reign of terror made possible by the pandemic that was sparked in the late stages of an evil war. It’s a cautionary story for these demagogic, saber-rattling times. While the Gogol touch is there, “The Captain” also suggests a feature film version of Francisco Goya’s “Los disastres de la guerra” from World War II. In one scene, Willis barbarians open fire on prisoners in a trench with an anti-aircraft gun and tear the victims to pieces. In another, Herold steps through a forest over a carpet of human skeletons.

That this grueling masquerade could ring so many artistic and psychological bells makes it all the more remarkable. The young Swiss actor Hubacher makes Willi’s transformation from a weak, frightened private man into an imperious, absolutely merciless “Captain Herold” absolutely credible. Frederick Lau is frighteningly memorable as one of Herald’s maniacs. Some later scenes play out like a dinner-theater version of Luchino Visconti’s “The Damned” (1969). But nothing that the writer and director Schwentke (“Allegiant”, “Red”, “RIPD”) has done indicates that he had such a great film as “The Captain” in him.

The fact that Schwentke, who was born in Stuttgart, used the seal of approval he had earned in Hollywood for this real World War II story with Florian Ballhaus-Linsen, would almost give hope if the film wasn’t so deeply dark and disturbing. The ending is very different from the real story. But it’s a fitting conclusion for the larger-than-life antihero. A parade during the credits suggests that Willi lives on in a colorful modern Germany and thus in all so-called civilizations of the West.

(“The Captain” contains extreme violence, cruelty and nudity).

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