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Film / The Captain

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"Who do you think you are?"
Willi Herold trying on his new, fateful persona

Der Hauptmann (The Captain) is a 2017 historical drama written and produced by Robert Schwentke.

April 1945, two weeks before the end of the Second World War. Willi Herold, a nineteen year old German deserter, is on the run for his life from his Nazi pursuers. As he makes his way across the cold, harsh landscape of the Emsland region in north-western Germany, he makes a startling discovery in an abandoned Wehrmacht vehicle: the pristine uniform of a Luftwaffe Captain. Eager to get out of his worn out, wet clothes, he slips the uniform on and begins a chilling transformation that would end up costing almost two hundred people their lives.

Inspired from the real story of Willi Herold, nicknamed the Executioner of Emsland, the film depicts his meteoric rise from simple private to all-powerful (albeit fake) captain during the last chaotic days of World War II, and is a chilling meditation on the corrupting influence of power, blind obedience and the influence of the Nazi regime on everyday people.

See also the documentary The Captain From Nowhere.

This film shows examples of:

  • Adaptation Dye-Job: Blond-haired Max Hubacher plays Herold, who had brown hair.
  • Age Lift: The real Freytag was in his twenties when he met Herold. In the film, he is played by 49 year old Milan Peschel.
  • Anyone Can Die: Nobody is safe in this film, especially not around Herold.
  • Artistic License History:
    • In reality, Willi Herold was never chased by German troops the way it is depicted in the film. He claims he got separated from his unit and found the uniform rather quickly afterwards. In all fairness, after he found the uniform he did make attempts to find his unit (he contacted the military higher ups in every village he visited and inquired about it) and even tried fighting off the British forces. His spiral of violence began when he reached the labor camp, and after he left it he became more focused on having fun and abusing the population rather than any serious war effort.
    • The real Kipinsky was not executed on Herold's orders. Instead, two other members of his band were executed because Herold accused them of trying to rape a woman after giving her morphium.
    • The German authorities who apprehended Herold were appalled at his crimes and wanted to hang him, which was considered the most humiliating and potentially painful way to go. It was only after two higher officials intervened that Herold was let go, to the dismay of the others.
    • Herold did eat his pay book (which functioned as an ID), but not at the moment of his capture. He had hidden it in his boot, and tore it to pieces and ate it when he was alone in his cell.
    • Karl Schütte was not killed in the destruction of the labor camp. He survived and ended up sharing the fate of Herold and five of his other accomplices: they were beheaded.
    • The relationship between Herold and the young woman in the film is decidedly coercive; she is based on a real Dutch woman by the name of Betty who had moved in with Herold in the Oranien Hotel in Leer. However, it was never established whether she did it willingly or she was intimidated into it. The interrogator in Herold's case speculates that both possibilites have merit.
    • In the film, there are hints that Freytag suspected Herold to be an impostor, as he makes a seemingly innocuous, but loaded comment about his pants being too long. The real Freytag had a very low level of intelligence according to the medical professional who evaluated him, and "wept like a child" when he was told that Herold was not a real captain, according to Herold himself.
  • Asshole Victim: The audience would be very hard pressed to feel sorry when Kipinsky is made to strip naked and executed.
  • Bad Boss: Herold frequently abuses the men under his command and has no qualms about threatening them with death if they step out of line.
  • Becoming the Mask: Herold masquerades as a Captain, and gradually begins to lose himself into that role. By the end of the film, he has become a monstrosity which the other morally-bankrupt Wehrmacht officers and Nazis admire.
  • Contrived Coincidence: Herold just happens to find a captain's uniform and goes into the one prisoner camp where the one in charge was itching to get rid of the surplus of prisoners he was saddled with. Of course, it happened exactly like this in real life, too.
  • Dangerous Deserter: Schütte claims the inmates in his camp are this but from what we see of them, they are hungry, cold and exhausted. Ironically, Schütte is telling all of this to the person who fits this trope the best: Herold himself.
  • Determinator: Herold will go to great lengths to achieve his goals, whether mere survival or power.
  • Dirty Coward: Despite all his bluster and haughty demeanor while he's in uniform, Herold is a shameless coward at his core. After he's caught and merely sent back to the front instead of being outright executed as would be appropriate for his crimes, he deserts again at the first opportunity.
  • Establishing Character Moment: Once Herold slips the captain uniform on, his behavior changes completely, down to the smallest gesture. Him trying his hand out at imitating an officer is half comical and half disquieting.
  • Face of an Angel, Mind of a Demon: Herold's youthful good looks stand in stark contrast to his monstrous personality.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • Once he gets dressed in the uniform he found, Herold begins juggling apples and singing the line "this is too good to be true," after which he bows to an unseen audience. It foreshadows the masquerade he will play until his capture.
    • When he deserts for a second time, Herold makes his way through a forest where half-buried human skeletons are scattered around. When he was captured by the British, the real Herold, guile as ever, volunteered to help dig up the corpses of his victims.
  • For the Evulz: Many of Herold's actions (and that of his group) serve no real purpose but satisfying his sadism.
  • For Want of a Nail: If Herold hadn't found that uniform, the mass murders wouldn't have happened. Alternatively, if any of the German officials he met had insisted even once for him to identify himself and wouldn't have been intimidated, his power trip would have stopped then and there.
  • From Nobody to Nightmare: Just as his real-life counterpart, Herold goes from a simple private to an all-powerful Luftwaffe Captain who terrorizes the Emsland and orders the unlawful and cruel execution of almost two hundred people.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: What drives a wedge between Herold and Kipinksy. They were never on great terms to begin with, as Kipinksy knew Herold was merely impersonating a captain and had no real authority, but things boil over when Kipinsky sleeps with a girl Herold had his eye on. It gets him executed.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: The real Richard Freytag was by all accounts not quite as humane and morally conflicted as in the film, having willingly participated in the murders. In later interviews, a woman who had encountered Herold's band is appalled at the thought of him having served only eight years of prison, calling him "the worst of all".
  • Historical Villain Downgrade: As hard as it is to believe, Herold's behavior was toned down in the film and he got several Pet the Dog moments that the real Herold is unlikely to have had, at least at the beginning.
  • Hunting the Most Dangerous Game: The film opens with Herold being hunted by the German military police like an animal, with one of the officers even blowing a hunting horn. Herold later replicates the scene when he ties some prisoners of war together at the ankles and forces them to run across a field while he shoots at them for sport.
  • Hypocrite: Herold is much worse than the men imprisoned in Camp II. He is a deserter, a thief, a rapist and a murderer and yet acts as if the prisoners are the dregs of humanity.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: After the first massacre, Herold asks Schütte to organize a fun evening. It's ambiguous whether he did it because he liked to party or to take off some of the psychological pressure that the shootings placed on his soldiers and the camp guards.
  • Judge, Jury, and Executioner: Once Herold takes over the command of the prison camp, he orders the immediate execution of all prisoners without any sort of trial.
  • Kangaroo Court: A rare example in which this trope works in the defendant's favor. It is obvious that none of the officials at Herold's trial actually want to convict him for his horrific crimes. Instead, they openly admire his dedication to the Nazi cause and allow him to rejoin the army with no punishment whatsoever.
  • Karma Houdini Warranty: The film ends with Herold being pardoned by a German military court and deserting once again, escaping his just punishment. However, a title card informs the viewer that he and six of his accomplices were eventually captured by the Allied forces, put on trial and executed for their crimes in 1946.
  • "Not So Different" Remark: By the end of the film, Herold proves himself to be just as cruel and power-drunk (if not worse) as Junker, the officer who tried to kill him in the film's opening scene. This is made explicit when the Nazi officials at Herold's trial, among whom Junker is present, point out that although he broke the law by impersonating a captain, he essentially acted no differently than a real captain would have in his situation.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: Hansen, the warden of the POW camp, answers to the civilian authorities rather than the military and is the only character in the film to actively oppose Herold's mass executions, though this seems to be less out of concern for the prisoners themselves than out of anger at Herold's blatant disregard for due protocol.
  • Pet the Dog: Herold offers an apple to the starving Freytag when they first meet. He also gently covers the body of the deserter who was caught and murdered when they were both trying to steal food from a barn. However, he sheds any semblance of compassion further into the movie, as see by:
  • Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: The crowning of Herold's moral degradation happens in the unsettling scene when he forces himself upon a naked and visibly terrified Betty, right after having had Kipinski torn out of her bed. There is a wordless exchange between them, and we don't even see Herold's face during it but it becomes very obvious that he crossed a boundary for which not even his megalomania can find an excuse. All the other crimes he committed were under the guise of survival, punishing traitors or collecting supplies, but this one is simply him taking advantage in the worst way of someone completely defenseless and who has done absolutely no wrong.
  • Refuge in Audacity: Herold repeatedly manages to avoid having to identify himself by acting offended and haughty, just like a real captain would have done.
  • Shown Their Work: During the post-execution party demanded by Herold during his first night in the labour camp, he is shown pouring a spoonful of sugar into his wine. The real Herold did that with two bottles of wine he downed during his stay there.
  • Start of Darkness: Arguably, the moment when Herold shoots the thief at the request of the innkeeper. It all goes downhill from there.
  • Tempting Fate: Herold does this twice. The first time, he is confronted with the officer who was hunting him at the beginning of the film and who finds the now clean, uniform-clad Herold familiar but can't quite recall where he met him. They discuss other topics and just as he's about to leave, Herold stops him and asks him if he remembered where they met. The man falsely recalls that they fought together in Crete. The second time, Herold is partying with Schütte and his wife, and brings up the possibility of him having stolen his uniform. Both look at him surprised, then begin laughing as they chose to interpret the possibility as a joke.
  • There Is No Kill Like Overkill: When Herold decides that the regular execution by firing squad doesn't work fast enough, he orders the prisoners to be massacred with an anti-aircraft gun.
  • Those Wacky Nazis: Herold is an interesting example. He wasn't a Nazi - in fact, he had been kicked out of Hitler Youth for continuously skipping exercises and meetings, and when he ran away from his apprenticeship because he didn't feel like working, the Gestapo caught him, held him for a week and gave him a hell of a beating. But once he adopted the persona of a captain, he turned into the ideal Nazi officer: commanding, cold, cruel, implacable, showing initiative and decisiveness (in all the morally abhorrent ways). He became the pinnacle of the stereotype of the order-barking, morally bankrupt, greedy and murderous Nazi.
  • Thrill Seeker: Although a survival artist, Herold likes to push things to the limit and needlessly puts himself in dangerous situations throughout the film. One could almost get the feeling that he wanted to be caught.
  • Token Good Teammate: Freytag for Kampfgruppe Herold, who is visibly horrified by the crimes from the outset. Also, Hans Dahler-Kaufmann, the officer with the bandaged arm for the Emsland camp, who is disgusted by Herold's mass executions all the way through, calling them an outragenote  to the murderers' faces and swearing to bring Herold up on charges over this.
  • Villain Protagonist: Although Herold starts the story as the kind of underdog viewers normally cheer for, he quickly becomes this.
  • Ungrateful Bastard: Herold is arrested by the German authorities, released and given a special mission when he should have ended up in a noose. He betrays them and deserts at the first opportunity.
  • The Unreveal: We never find out what happened to the owner of the uniform stolen by Herold.
  • Yes-Man: Freytag is this for Herold. Even when he finds his orders difficult to follow, he still does as he is told.