The Captain is a German WWII film about the spiral of personal and national depravity. Specifically, it’s about war criminal Willi Herold, a 19-year-old German soldier who pretends to be an officer during the war’s final weeks and creates his own private murder task force.
There is in this a very, very dark film based on a true story without redemption. But there is a justice of sorts.
Herold is disconnected from his unit in April 1945 when he finds and dons a Luftwaffe captain’s uniform, which immediately transforms the teenager into a fearsome force. Perhaps Germans are traditionally more cowed by uniforms than other cultures. Konrad Adenauer once warned young Henry Kissinger not to heed military counsel unless delivered out of uniform.
Other stray soldiers and deserters submit to Herold’s uniformed faux authority as they roam behind the lines of the Western front. His rampage begins when villagers ask him to execute an accused thief of scarce food, which he does willingly and expeditiously. His “Task Force Herold” merrily joins his expanding homicidal habits.
To distract from his false identity, Herold talks his way into a penal camp for German deserters and other alleged army miscreants. His power increases as he authorizes others to commit the depravities they desire but lack the authority to enact on their own. A frustrated camp officer regrets they must coddle the prisoners while real soldiers die at the front. Herold suggests the obvious to his delighted listener: Let’s shoot them! They deserve it!
Claiming direct authority from the Fuehrer, Herold and his excited collaborator outwit the few camp authorities who prefer to follow procedure. Pleading phone calls by the resisters to the Ministry of Justice in Berlin elicit only whimperings, while other Nazi authorities enthusiastically green light Herold’s murderous audacity.
The two final objectors to the executions quit the camp as Herold continues his grisly work, forcing the reluctant to participate, so all are besmeared and complicit. A celebratory dinner at the camp includes an officer’s purring wife, wearing a puckish fur around her shoulders. She gushes over the executions into which she herself joins. The feast degenerates into a demonic, howling brawl among the celebrants.
Herold in real life may have murdered nearly 200 prisoners at the camp, a site still commemorated today for its crimes. The slaughter is interrupted only by a Royal Air Force (RAF) raid, which smashes the camp into kindling wood. It’s very brief but is the only satisfying scene in the film.
Sadly, Herold and some of his henchmen survive the raid and continue their sadistic rampage at large. In real life, they executed a surrendering farmer and six Dutchmen accused of espionage. In the film, they shoot a surrendering mayor, steal from the townspeople, and convene a cross-dressing orgy with willing town women. Such carnal scenes were not uncommon during the Third Reich’s final days, including at Hitler’s bunker in Berlin.
German military police eventually intervene. But at a hastily convened trial, Herold is exonerated for, despite his impersonation of an officer, having injected energy into resistance and suppressed defeatism. In real life, he also evaded justice after German military arrest. After all, his unauthorized deeds were not very distinguishable from official Nazi policy.
The film’s final scene has Herold escaping into the woods across a field of human bones. After Germany’s surrender, he was arrested by the British occupiers, ironically for stealing bread. His larger crimes were discovered, he’s compelled to exhume his scores of victims at the camp, and then he was executed with some of his co-conspirators. The film notes his execution with a brief epitaph, to which viewers can only respond, after two hours of uninterrupted depravity, with, “Thank God, finally!!”
Herold mirrors Hitler himself as an unexceptional cipher who quickly graduates to unearned power by empowering the very worst instincts of his audience. Finally, someone is decisive, boldly articulating and effectuating so many unspoken thoughts! He also incarnates Germany itself during its most shameful era.
The film offers no heroes. Resistance to Herold is rare and weak. His crimes are not be halted or punished by Germans but by avenging outsiders. We don’t see the avenging RAF pilots up close or his British executioners at all. We can only appreciate they finally complete their long overdue work.
As with persons, so with nations, if great wickedness persists without internal regret and correction, an outside force equipped by divine wrath must execute judgment. The film, in a final scene, ominously shows Task Force Herold of 1945 marauding through a modern German city, molesting and robbing bystanders of circa 2017 without resistance. Persons, cultures, communities, and nations, if complacent, will inevitably reap the consequences.