The Captain escalates until the horrific becomes funny

Robert Schwentke’s The Captain opens similarly to the 2014 post-apocalypse movie The Rover: a few people in a car chase an innocent across an expanse of nothing, firing guns at him for what seems like a combination of survival and fun. And for the first 20 minutes, The Captain is most similar to the handful of small, woodsy end of the world movies that have come out recently (It Comes At Night, Z for Zachariah), in that a few characters wander around empty fields, scrounging up what they can, not doing much besides living. There’s fighting happening somewhere, but we’re watching scenes from the fringes, where people are trying to not die.
The twist is the innocent from the beginning didn’t deserve our sympathy and he wasn’t an innocent– it’s World War II, we’re in Germany and our wanderer is a Nazi named Willi Herold, deserting his fellow troops as everybody in the Axis slowly realized they weren’t going to get away with being history’s villains. Willi, based on a real soldier, finds a dead captain in a car on the side of the road, takes his outfit and tells the people he meets he’s a higher-up in the German army. Nobody questions this because, well, you’ve seen Nazi movies and Twilight Zone episodes before. You know what happened during the Stanford Prison Experiment. You’ve watched people in power abuse it. After gathering a troupe of fellow lost Germans, the acting Captain descends on a prison camp full of his jailed countrymen and violently takes control.
It’s a relief that The Captain never tries to make Willi a sympathetic character. So often, in movies and books, we hear stories about the “good Germans”– the townsfolk who kept Jews under their floorboards, the generals who hated Hitler, the concentration camp guards who let little emaciated kids eat extra bread. I get it. It makes sense to, as Mr. Rogers said in a quote people tend to share after terrible things have happened (read: every other day) “look for the helpers” when unambiguously terrible things are happening. We also want to look in from the outside and think “If I was in this situation, I would have been one of the good people,” and it’s easier to do that when we have a protagonist on screen to project ourselves onto. Schwentke’s film shows us what this Nazi did, not the psychology behind why he did it, and so we don’t get to see both sides. A side-effect of not delving into what makes a person abuse power so dramatically is we don’t get any supporting characters popping in to ask Willi (and the audience) “What makes a person start killing people under cover of rank and a uniform?” The Captain is a brutal film that doesn’t pretend there are any easy answers, so it doesn’t ask the question in the first place.
And then there’s the last scene, a potentially serious conclusion interrupted by a smash cut that made me laugh out loud. I don’t want to give anything away, but it’s a testament to the film’s strengths that this isn’t tonal whiplash. Things just progress and escalate and in lieu of any explanation, we get, well, the real story’s ending.
If you’re familiar with Schwentke, you’re probably German, which is odd considering most of his movies have been American blockbusters. After making two films in his home country, he came to the US and put together an eleven-year-long filmography including R.I.P.D., Flightplan and two Divergent movies. It isn’t clear why he returned to Germany and to smaller-sized projects, but the Divergent series is essentially dead in the water after poor box office returns on the last film led producers to abandon theaters in favor of finishing out the series with TV movies (star Shailene Woodley said she signed up for movies, not TV, and everything’s been on hold for two years).
To break through in Hollywood with Flightplan–the 5,000th bad decision Jodie Foster has made in the past three decades–and to wind up on a series of anonymous YA adaptations ignored even by their original fanbase is a weird go. If I told you Nick Cassavetes directed The Time Traveler’s Wife, a film that made double its budget, you would assume I was right. Turns out it was Schwentke! If I told you Jan de Bont made Red, a fun action movie successful enough to warrant a sequel, you’d think “Ah, good for Jan!” Turns out it was Schwentke!
The Captain feels like a writer-director cracking open the notebook he writes ideas in between shooting Divergent movies and is only able to return to when somebody takes that job away. It’s like a German Drag Me To Hell.
There are fascinating little flourishes throughout this film that don’t always work but are appreciated for their originality nonetheless. The soundtrack is full of minimal guitar plucking, drones, long periods of silence and electronic squeaks and feedback that make you wonder if the theater’s speaker system is damaged. Max Hubacher, the young man who brilliantly plays the title role, is often shot in close-up, and this was probably the only I’ve ever thought that not covering a lead actor’s acne with makeup was a strong aesthetic choice.
An example of a flourish that doesn’t completely work, and there’s no way to discuss this without spoiling part of the film, so maybe stop reading: About 80% of the way into The Captain, British bombers destroy the prison camp and nearly everybody is killed. Before we can really make sense of what’s happened, up flashes a title card explaining that only a single brick of the prison remains today and the movie shifts from black and white to color for ten seconds while we see the actual location in 2017. Until this moment, the movie hasn’t let us know it’s based on a true story. I assume this break into reality, color and the present is meant to be a jolt, but the footage is just of a vacant field; as the title card already told us, nothing remains. I can see this being an effective sucker punch if you didn’t know you were dealing with a biopic. This is the moment you do a spit-take and think “Wait, this crazy thing really happened?” But who in the world is going to see an independently distributed Nazi drama in 2018 without knowing anything about it, much less that it’s a true story? If this is a twist, it doesn’t work. If it’s a chance to catch a breath after something crazy, maybe it works a little better. Whatever the intention, though, it’s weird. It’s interesting to think about. And I’m more than happy to have something weird and interesting interrupt a movie. I am grateful Robert Schwentke, his Roger Deakins-y cinematographer, his willing-to-go-there cast and everybody else involved are okay throwing things like this in. Because God knows there are already enough Divergent-type movies with every edge sanded off.
The Captain opens today at the Ritz Bourse.

Author: Alex Rudolph

Alex is from the Bay Area and has lived in Philadelphia for three years, though he is trying to find a way to transport into the Squand commercial that always played early in the morning on Nickelodeon (with a summer place in the Crossfire ad). If you want to talk about Dan Clowes comics and Merzbow, he will sit here and talk about Dan Clowes comics and Merzbow all dang day. He is also the founder of the popular websites AV Club, The New York Times, Harpo Productions and Bitcoin. Follow him on Instagram.

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