The Captain from Köpenick (Der Hauptmann von Köpenick) is a 1956 film from West Germany directed by Helmut Käutner.
It is based on the true story of a cobbler and petty criminal named Wilhelm Voigt. The film opens in 1894, with Wilhelm having just gotten out of jail after serving 10 years for forgery. He desperately tries to go straight and find work, but he can't, thanks to the maddeningly circular Catch-22 Dilemma of Prussian bureaucracy: to get a job, he needs a passport; to get a passport, he needs a job; to get a place to live, he needs a job. He considers leaving the country and his criminal past behind...but he can't get a passport. Finally Voigt, in desperation, breaks into a Berlin passport office for the sole purpose of forging a passport that will allow him to leave the country. He is caught and arrested.
Twelve years pass; it is now 1906. Wilhelm, who has spent most of his life in jail despite never committing a violent crime or stealing from individuals, is released again, and goes to live with his sister in the Berlin suburb of Köpenick. Nothing has changed: Wilhelm can't get a job because he doesn't have a residency permit and can't get a residency permit because he doesn't have a job. He receives an order to leave town. Eventually he figures out that the whole Prussian bureaucracy is built to make life hopeless for ex-cons like him.
Wilhelm is shuffling about the streets of Köpenick in despair when he sees something unusual: a full Prussian officer's uniform, offered for sale by a street vendor. (A goodly chunk of the film tells the story of the uniform, which used to belong to the mayor, a reservist. He had to get a new one when he got too fat.) Wilhelm hits on a wild idea, which involves the uniform, the German tendency to obey anyone who wears a uniform, and a Bavarian Fire Drill.
The real Wilhelm Voigt became a minor celebrity in Germany after his scam, and his story became something of a modern day folk tale. His story inspired a popular German stage play, which was translated into English, and at least seven theatrical and television films, five (including this one) in German and two in English.
- Adaptational Heroism: While the events in this film seem to mostly correspond to the exploits of the real Wilhelm Voigt, in the movie, Wilhelm turns himself in. In real life, one of his criminal buddies informs on him to the police.
- Bavarian Fire Drill: Wilhelm buys the uniform, and puts it on. He sees a squad of soldiers marching down a street, and simply by barking orders and acting like an officer, he takes command of them. He then marches them to city hall, occupies the place, and then puts the mayor under arrest. He then strides into the cashier's office and, implying that the mayor has embezzled funds, confiscates the entire cash box—over 4000 marks. Wilhelm eventually makes his escape and no one figures out that he was a fraud until the mayor is transported to the police in Berlin.
- Blatant Lies: Wilhelm's brother-in-law Friedrich is sympathetic to Wilhelm's plight, but as a good obedient Prussian, he cannot conceive that the state can do wrong. So when Wilhelm pours out his despair after getting his notice to leave town, Friedrich states "There is no injustice in Germany!"
- Book-Ends: The film both begins and ends with Wilhelm watching soldiers march by in the street, the first time after he's been released from jail, the second time after he's been pardoned by the Kaiser.
- Call-Back: Early in the film, Wilhelm tries to get a job in a shoe factory, only for the clerk to repeatedly ask "Did you serve? Did you serve?" before rejecting him for not having served in the army. Later, when both the mayor and the cashier clerk are slow to obey his instructions, Wilhelm barks "Did you serve? Did you serve?
- Catch-22 Dilemma: "No residence address—no job. No job—no residence. No residence—no passport. No passport—getting ousted."
- Chekhov's Skill: It is established that, while in prison, a bored Wilhelm read a Prussian manual on military drill until he had committed it to memory. Further, when the warden does his silly reenactments of Sedan, Wilhelm crisply marches other prisoners around. This establishes how proficient he is when he dons the officer's uniform in the third act.
- Conversation Cut: The last line of dialogue in the movie. Not only has Wilhelm been pardoned by the Kaiser, he finally gets the passport that he so desperately wanted. Wilhelm smiles ruefully and says "I don't need it anymore, because I am—", and cut to Wilhelm on the street, as children run up to him calling him "The Captain of Köpenick!"
- Glory Days: The prison warden likes to bore his inmates every Sedan Day by recounting his exploits during the battle and forming them all up for mock re-enactments. Besides being comical this is Foreshadowing that establishes Wilhelm's familiarity with military drill despite never having been in the army.
- Incurable Cough of Death: The young woman who lives as a boarder in Marie's house, dying of TB.
- Institutional Apparel: Wilhelm and the other prisoners wear the stereotypical striped outfit.
- Invisible President: We don't see Kaiser Wilhelm II, but we do hear him on the other side of an office door, guffawing with laughter as he hears the story of the petty crook who impersonated a Prussian officer. The Kaiser pardons the other Wilhelm right after this, and Wilhelm goes free.
- The Man: When politely reminded by the authorities near the end of the film that he did commit a crime, Wilhelm says that he never robbed any individuals. "I only fought the authorities!"
- Match Cut: From the prisoners tramping around in formation as the idiot warden makes them reenact the Battle of Sedan, to a regiment of real soldiers marching down the street as Wilhelm is released from jail again.
- A Nazi by Any Other Name: While the original story of Wilhelm Voigt predated the rise of Hitler by a quarter-century, the symbolism in this film, and especially the lampooning of the German fetish for uniforms and the German instinct to obey people who wear uniforms, would have been obvious to a German audience in 1956.
- Obstructive Bureaucrat: All the petty civil servants who take malicious pleasure in denying Wilhelm residency permits and passports. One clerk not only denies him a passport but sics his dog on Wilhelm when Wilhelm tries to argue.
- Off-into-the-Distance Ending: Wilhelm, now a minor celebrity, goes striding off into the distance, having found a home in Köpenick, as a troop of soldiers passes him.
- Only Sane Man: Obermuller's wife, who points out that the "captain" who has shown up to arrest her husband has not shown any identification and did not produce an arrest warrant. She is ignored.
- Time Skip: 12 years, in which Wilhelm serves his sentence for breaking and entering, and Dr. Obermuller of Köpenick fulfills his ambition and becomes mayor. This is when Obermuller gets called up for brief duty again and discovers that he no longer fits into his old uniform, which is how it eventually falls into Wilhelm's hands.
- Title Drop: The Berlin police officer explains that Obermuller and the others were hoaxed and lets the mayor go. As Obermuller leaves he chuckles, "The Captain of Köpenick". Later, at the very end of the film, the children of the town call Wilhelm "The Captain of Köpenick" as well.
- Translated Cover Version: The Prussian anthem, "Heil dir im Siegerkranz", is sung to the tune of "God Save the King".