Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Der Hauptmann (4½ Stars)


Robert Schwentke is a German director, born in Stuttgart, who has had some success in Hollywood with the films "RED", "Insurgent" and "Allegiant". Now he has returned to his roots by making a film in German, "Der Hauptmann" ("The Captain"). It's a work of love for him. He presented the film in Stuttgart today, and he told the audience that it's a film he's wanted to make for 10 years. When he first wanted to make it he didn't know if he could find financing for the project, and he didn't feel that he had the technical competence. After 10 years of education in the harsh world of the Hollywood film industry he finally felt able to make the film, together with his fellow Stuttgarter Frieder Schlaich as producer.

The film tells the true story of how 19-year-old Willi Herold became a notorious war criminal in the final weeks of World War Two. With the exception of the opening scene, which Robert Schwentke invented to make the character sympathetic to the audience, the story is told as accurately as possible, based on written accounts and eye witness reports. As Schwentke said, it's a story that nobody could have made up. It all sounds too absurd to be true.

The film takes place in north Germany in April 1945, behind the front lines in the battle between the Germans and the English. The area is full of German deserters, and even the faithful few soldiers who are separated from their units are accused of deserting. Willi Herold, a deserter himself, finds an abandoned car containing the uniform of an air force captain. He puts on the uniform, and he recruits random soldiers that he finds roaming in the area. He drives with them to a German prison camp, claiming to have been sent by Hitler to examine morale on the front. The prisoners are all German soldiers, mostly deserters, some of them guilty of other crimes like theft or rape. They're being held until they can be put on trial. Willi Herold claims the responsibility for creating order. He says that it's wrong for German criminals to enjoy better comfort than soldiers fighting on the front line, so he orders their execution.


After the camp is destroyed in an air raid Herold and his troops drive to the closest town. He finds that signs have been put up welcoming the English, so his first act is to execute the mayor. He sets up his headquarters in the town's hotel, where he puts everyone on trial who he considers unpatriotic. He called it a "Schnellgericht", a "fast court". People were brought before him and the charges were stated. If he considered them guilty they were shot and dragged out of the courtroom dead.

The main question I asked myself while watching the film was "Why did he do it?" This was the first question asked by an audience member after the film. Robert Schwentke said that he deliberately left this question unanswered. It was a time of mass confusion, and normal men did evil things. He wants the audience to ask themselves what they would have done in Willi Herold's place.

For myself, and I emphasises that this is only a personal interpretation, I see parallels with "Taxi Driver". Willi Herold wasn't a bad man in himself. He was a youngster who wanted to fight for his country, but it was too much for him. When the enemy came he fled for his life. That's what I would have done as well. That left him on the wrong side of the law. He was a criminal. That was an existential problem for him. He wanted to do good. The military uniform he found gave him an opportunity to put things right. He denied his past and claimed to be a good German soldier. He punished those who had done what he himself was guilty of. He crossed the line, doing evil in order to redeem himself.

This is a chilling war film. It's cold. It's brutal. It's realistic. It's like no World War Two film I've seen before.

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