by Steven Prokopy
There are few films in 2018 or most years quite like THE CAPTAIN, the latest from writer/director Robert Schwentke, a German filmmaker who has spent a great deal of the 2000s making high-profile, big-budgeted works in the United States. But for THE CAPTAIN, he has returned to his homeland to tell a based-on-true-events story that so directly contradicts many long-held beliefs by Germans about certain behaviors (by both citizens and soldiers) during World War II that there was a great deal of resistance to the movie even being made.
Set in the final weeks of the Third Reich, THE CAPTAIN tells the tale of Willi Herold (newcomer Max Hubacher), a private in the German army who deserted and gets ahold of a Nazi captain’s uniform and quickly realizes the power such a garment still holds over the minds of the German people. And while most Germans are counting the days until the Allies march into Berlin and end the European part of the war, “Captain” Herold gathers a group of renegade soldiers and leads a campaign of brutality and sadism, most of which centers on a prisoner-of-war camp. And did we mention that this exquisitely shot black-and-white film also works as a scathing black comedy about fascism and accountability during wartime?
After directing such works as THE FAMILY JEWELS and the standout serial killer film TATTOO in Germany, Schwentke was hired to come to America in 2005 and helm the Jodie Foster vehicle FLIGHTPLAN, followed a few years later with an adaptation of THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE, RED (starring Bruce Willis and Helen Mirren), R.I.P.D. (with Ryan Reynolds and Jeff Bridges), and the second and third installments of the DIVERGENT series, INSURGENT and ALLEGIANT, in 2015 and 2016, respectively. But somewhere along this steady run of films, the idea to made the story of Willi Herold crept into his mind and never left. We spoke to Schwentke recently to discuss the film’s long birthing process, the questions about Nazism he did not want to answer, and his painstaking search for the man to play Herold. The film is being distributed by Music Box Films and opens at the Music Box Theatre on Friday, August 3.
Question: I’ve seen all of your American films and a couple of your German works. It’s been a while since you’ve worked in Germany. But to come back in this fashion, with such an unheard of perspective from a German-made film, why tell this story, especially from this perspective?
Robert Schwentke: I’m not a historian but I am a cinephile, and I’m a big fan of Japanese national cinema, Eastern European, Russian and even East German cinema, and there are a variety of films that deal with the trauma of World War II from the perspective of the perpetrators. Also, for example, Louis Malle’s LACOMBE, LUCIEN  is a terrific film about opportunism. I became aware that in Germany, only two films exist that are told from the perspective of the perpetrators, and I found that very surprising and I also found surprising that in literature there’s almost nothing in that respect. All of these other nations that were involved in World War II, they all engaged in some sort of cinematic reckoning with their own past, and Germany had not done that and I’d hoped that that was not symptomatic. I thought, I’d really like to make a film about, not the first row of perpetrators but about the back row, the people who kept the system going, and make a film about the dynamic structure of National Socialism.
There were two national myths—there still are two myths—and the first is about the Clean Wehrmacht, and this is a myth I grew up with, that everybody around me told me, that teachers told us, parent and grandparents told us. It was that the Wehrmacht, the ordinary soldiers, had not engaged in genocide and mass murder, that they were not ideologically driven, that all atrocities had been committed solely by the SS—thusly, linking up violence with ideology, rather than human nature. It all came to a head after the Iron Curtain fell and all of this photographic material was made available from Russian archives, photos from German POWs, that depicted members of the Wehrmacht celebrating in front of a pile of bodies of civilians they had just killed. So that myth came crashing down in 1987. However, a lot of people still hold onto it.
We had a lot of opposition to this film, in terms of state funding. There were some very hardline opponents to this film who really tried to buried it because they felt it soils the Wehrmacht. This was a very hard film to finance. We also have very strong proponents and supporters who said it’s time we make a film like this, because we have not been able to do this for whatever reasons.
The other national myth is that there were no deserters in the German army. So all of these national preoccupations and myths, in addition to my cinephile leanings, led me to search for a story that would enable me to make a different kind of movie about the German past. I found a variety of stories and I zeroed in on this one finally because I found it allowed me to take a look at the structure of National Socialism and the systemic problems in that structure, going all the way from the bottom to the tippy top where generals are deciding that this man is actually a good man. I didn’t approach it as a character study, but really as a look at a system and individuals functioning in the system. The film is not a classical tragedy in the sense that, in the third act, the king will lose his head. The tragedy in this story could have been avoided, and the reason it wasn’t was because of every single, little choice that everyone involved, however peripheral, made.
There have been films about the beginnings of National Socialism. There is a unique quality to watching something at the end of its run, where those involved don’t feel like they have anything to lose. There’s a desperation to the people here that clearly contributed to what happens in this story. Was that something you were seeking to capture, that flailing that goes on when something is dying a painful death?
RS: That’s exactly the perfect word. The flailing within a dying behemoth. I also feel that the whole story is ripe with ironies and grotesque and farcical elements—one of the main ones being that the war is almost over. The British army was two miles away, and they still adhered to these rules and the hollowed-out rulebook and ideology. They, of course, didn’t know that the war was going to be over in a few weeks. They could probably feel it, and they had been hearing for two years that the war was over. In a weird way, the system was falling apart, and they were holding on by a thread, and maybe that’s what fueled enthusiasm.
Do you feel like you’re in a unique position as far as your perspective on these events? This is a very much a part of the history of where you come from—so that makes you an insider—but at the same time, you’ve spent much of the 2000s making films outside of Germany. Do you feel uniquely positioned to see things from both perspectives?
RS: I would say that I feel like both an outsider and an insider at times. I’m definitely European and German. I love the language language and culture, and like most Germans of our generation, I grapple with our past. There’s a certain culpability, even with my generation, and you can’t really escape the question “How could it happen? How was this possible?” It’s very strange, and I think being Germany was the original impetus for this inquiry. I don’t think I would have ever engaged with the past in this way. As an outsider, though, both in cinematic terms and having lived in other political contexts, yes, that was liberating because I felt like I could take a look from a different angle, a look from the outside rather than just the inside out.
I think if I hadn’t made all of these Hollywood movies, I wouldn’t have been able to make THE CAPTAIN because I was lucky enough to try out a lot of different tonalities and genres and put different color on my palette, as it were. And THE CAPTAIN benefits from that. I wouldn’t have been able to make it without the experience I’d gathered over the years, and I also wouldn’t have attempted to crack open this particular genre as wide as we did. I quickly realized that there were all of these conventions in German films that take place during World War II that had, over the years, calcified into truth or a set of rules that they had to function by. This started in the ’50s. You always had a good Nazi. If you had a bad Nazi, you had to realize he was being bad by becoming good. There was always a voice of reason, one Nazi who got it. There was also always, what I would consider, an effort to make a finite construct, something that actually severed and separated what you were watching from the present, that distances us from the past. They were not attempts to talk about the past in terms of today; they talked about the past as something that had no more affect on us. “We can’t explain why it happened, but it’s done. That’s not us anymore.”
So we decided very early on that we would not adhere to those conventions, that we would make a film that was unabashedly modern and not fall prey to the fetishism of authenticity, that was most definitely all history—a look back in time from a moment with its own biases, problems and issues. That’s why the music is decidedly modern, that’s why there’s a color image there. We tried to hard to make the whole aesthetic of the film rather modern. We really tried to make a film that felt of today. I don’t quite understand why you would make a film about the past unless it was relevant to today. We were making a film about something specifically that occurred during a very specific time in history, but that contains issues that are relevant to today.
So why was this the time to tell this specific story?
RS: [Laughs] I wish I could tell you that this was all planned and that I’m so smart that I lined it up so that it coincided with world affairs of the day, but we made the film when we got the financing together. I say this, when I started researching it and started talking to friends about it—this was 12 years ago—everybody looked at me and said, “Oh my God, why would you do that to yourself, and why would you do that to us? Can you please not do this?” And I’d say, “This is a story that is ultimately about human nature, and it is about war and what I see happening in Rwanda and Bosnia.” And everybody was like “No no no.” But the last four years, unfortunately, the story gained new relevance, and nobody wondered why I was still pursuing this story, because with the rise of a new nationalism, chauvinism, or something that is just another word for xenophobia and racism, people felt that this actually maybe was something that should be seen. It was interested because when we were starting on the set, we were very conscious of the fact that we were making something that was relevant. We were not oblivious to that, but the timing was not entirely up to me; it was fortuitous.
You said something earlier about how there had only been two German films that were told from the perpetrators point of view. What do you consider those films?
RS: THE WANNSSEE CONFERENCE from 1984, which was a TV movie; and from 1977, DEATH IS MY TRADE, which was a fictionalized biography of Rudolf Höss, based on a book by a French novelist, not by a German because we don’t write those kind of books. But those are the only two films. For example, a film like DOWNFALL, ideologically is very questionable. I wanted to make an anti-DOWNFALL, to be very blatant and up front about it, because what DOWNFALL suggests is that cultural catastrophe between 1933 and 1945 was really due to one thing. And had [Hitler] listened to the saner voices around him, we wouldn’t have gone quite so deeply into the abyss. In Germany we call this line of reasoning “apologist.” And there was quite a bit of controversy around the book when it was published, many years before it was made into a film, because of that.
The antithesis of that would be a film about a dynamic system of National Socialism. I keep coming back to that sort of frame, but that really was the impetus. The Wannssee Conference is, of course, where the Final Solution was negotiated. That film and DEATH IS MY TRADE are both about the architects of the system. Both deal with the decision maker, and I wanted to make a film about the boots on the ground, the people who keep the system going and come from a large spectrum of the population and were not always ideologically driven, by the way.
The film is in a stunning, haunting black and white. Was that a tough sell? You said certain aspect of the story were a tough sell to get financing, but was making it in black and white ever an issue?
RS: The truth is, you are contractually obliged to deliver, with your black-and-white version, a color version. They had to do that with the Haneke movie [THE WHITE RIBBON]; it doesn’t matter who you are, that’s just what it is. Once the movie is out there and has been seen as black and white and maybe gotten a couple of awards, nobody is going to insist on the color version. But you have to deliver it. This was an implacable point in all the contracts; it was a given. But after the film received a prize for Best Photography in San Sebastian, we haven’t heard a peep. But there were certain platform outlets, and I won’t name names, who said “We don’t buy black-and-white films,” which is also an interesting development.
Was the level of violence in the film one of the factors you considered in making it black and white in the first place? I’ve heard you can get away with my bloodshed in black and white.
RS: Absolutely. That was the sole reason.
Your lead actor, Max Hubacher, especially in black and white, he look like a classic silent film star. How did you find him?
RS: [Laughs] He does, you’re right. He’s not known. He’s from Switzerland, and he’s made two or three films in Switzerland, but he’s actually still in acting school. We got him out of acting school, which was not supportive at all, and we kept saying “He’s going to actually act. How could you not be supportive of that?” They finally let him go for the duration of the filming, but even to premieres or any press activity, the school is implacable. He’s terrifically talented. We did two long castings—one right after I finished INSURGENT, and he was the one I really responded to. There’s a fantastic new generation of actors in Germany that are as goos as any I’ve ever seen, but he was the one who fit the role the best. And then a year later, when we knew we were making the film, I said I wanted to do another round of casting because at that age, many things can happen. And it was still him. Then we did extensive rehearsals.
In a film filled with shocking moments, perhaps the most shocking is the closing title card that reveals that Herold was 21 when he died, which means he was younger when these events took place. He wasn’t some kind of master con artist; he was doing this spontaneously and it reveals a resourcefulness he probably didn’t know he had. It makes us realize that we all are capable of horrible things, depending on the circumstance.
RS: I think that’s right. What it came down to for the real Herold—and I went to the state archive where he was sentenced by the British military court and they still have the last surviving files of the court proceedings—what I could glean from everything I read, and I have read everything, was that for him, it was a game of cowboys and indians with ammo. He was not a sadist or ideologically motivated, but having that kind of power changed him. It’s also the tale of someone who never hears the word “No.” Nobody attempts to actually stop him, not anywhere anytime, not in any meaningful way. People tried to get in his way, but nobody does so successfully. It’s almost like you push through a door and you expect someone to say “You can’t be here,” but nobody says it, and then you push through the next door, and you’re going to see how many doors there are.
And once you make it through a certain number of doors, people assume you belong there.
RS: That’s exactly right! But like I said earlier, this was not meant to be a character study. I looked at him and asked myself, “Why would this person do this?” And I very quickly realized that for the movie I wanted to make, that wasn’t the right question because the moment I define him psychologically or in clinical terms, I create a distance. So we intentionally left a void, and a lot of people struggle with this. They want us to tell them why this guy did this, and the refusal to do that is intentional because I want you to figure it out for yourself, and you will have a different answer than the guy next to you. At some point, you’ll be talking about it, and already a discourse has started, and that’s ideally what would happen.
I have to ask about the end-credits sequence [in which some of the actors are seen driving in a Nazi military vehicle through the streets of modern Germany, saluting and asking people for their papers]. What the hell is going on there? How much of that is real people, how much is actors responding? What are we seeing there?
RS: That was done without permits. We took the car and drove it through places where you can’t even drive with a car. When they arrive at the square, half of the people in the square were actors; they other half were just people who happened to be there. My actors—Herold and his people—never knew who was an actor and who was not. I was basically next to the camera coaching them, saying “Go over there and grab this.” It was a half-improvised thing. It wasn’t a prank because clearly there was a camera shooting. In Germany, all of them are very recognizable actors. It was kind of a carnival-esque atmosphere, sadly. People started to go with us and try to control other people. It got a little out of hand. And I didn’t know if I wanted to put it in the film or not; it was in and out for a long time. Half of the audience doesn’t like it—they feel it’s redundant—and the other half is grateful for it because they feel “Now I know why you put me through all of this.” Everything falls into place. So we were deliberating whether it should be in or out, and I finally left it in because I figured, the people that don’t need it, don’t need it. And the people who need it, get it.
I almost hesitate to ask, did anyone salute back as they were driving by?
RS: Of course.
That’s why you put it in.
RS: Of course. It’s always hard to know whether they did it in jest, albeit in bad taste. It doesn’t really matter; the gesture suffices.
Robert, it was great speaking with you. Best of luck with this.
RS: Thank you for taking the time.