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Film / The Captain From Nowhere

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My first impression, I remember, was so startlingly different from what I had expected. I had read of all things he was supposed to have done, and then there was this boyish-looking figure... cheerful, bright and alert. It really was a total surprise.
Michael Evelyn, the prosecutor

The Captain From Nowhere (Original title Der Hauptmann von Muffrika) is a 1997 documentary about the nineteen year old German private first class Willi Herold, who stumbled upon a Luftwaffe Captains' uniform shortly before the end of World War II and used the authority granted by it to gather a group of soldiers around him and to terrorize the Emsland region, culminating in orchestrating a bloody massacre in the Aschendorfermoor prisoner camp.

The documentary is notable for the numerous first hand accounts it presents, and has become a valuable source of information for historians interested in this rather obscure story.

See also the film adapting the events, The Captain.

This documentary contains examples of:

  • Alternative Character Interpretation: In-universe. Herold could be extremely personable and charming when it suited him. Years after his execution, the prosecutor still remembered him with a surprising degree of warmth. The people who experienced him as an all powerful, brutal, order-barking, merciless "captain" have a much different view of him, however.
  • Bad Boss: Herold ordered the summary and unlawful execution of almost two hundred men, and implicated "his" men in war crimes.
  • Book Ends: The documentary begins and ends with fragments of the photograph showing a seventeen year old Herold, superimposed with the song "Auch ich war einst ein feiner Csardaskavalier" from the opera Gräfin Maria.
  • Big Entrance: Herold's entrance in Papenburg qualified as this for one witness, who could still clearly recall them marching into town, Herold surrounded by his underlings, looking confident and playing with the knife on his belt.
  • Blatant Lies: Herold's claim that he was a captain on a mission from the Führer himself.
  • Sharp-Dressed Man: According to the witnesses, Herold looked impeccable in his captain's uniform, and was always very well put together. One former prisoner in particular recalled the white silk scarf he was wearing with his uniform.
  • Dissonant Serenity: The prosecutor at his trial described him looking around the courtroom and smiling, even giving him a wink when he caught him covertly watching him. He was on trial for mass murder.
  • Face of an Angel, Mind of a Demon: Herold was described as an innocent-looking, blue eyed, baby faced boy and was usually cheerful and alert, with an undeniable charisma and energy.
  • From Nobody to Nightmare: All it took was an ambitious young man, a Captain's uniform and a few minutes for the transformation to occur.
  • Hypocrite: Herold's megalomania comes in stark contrast with the unlawful and brutish way he behaves. By the end of his murderous masquerade, he has committed more crimes (murder, theft, robbery, stolen valor etc) than any of the men he sentenced to death.
  • Lackof Empathy: Herold and his band demonstrate a lack of compassion and human decency that beggars belief.
  • Stock Footage: Intermingled with the witness interviews is stock footage of war scenes and very old film images of the Emsland.
  • Tagline: A murderous masquerade. The original German tagline, Eine mörderische Köpenickade references the 1931 German satirical play The Captain of Köpenick, where an ex-convict shoemarker impersonates a Prussian Guards officer, holds the mayor of a small town to ransom and successfully "confiscates" the town's treasury, claiming to be acting in the name of the Kaiser.
  • Pet the Dog: Subverted. One witness, whose house Herold and his band had occupied, describes how she begged him not to have two desertors who had wandered into her parents' kitchen executed. He brushed her off initially, but she bravely persisted and got him to relent. However, he immediately made the interaction transactional by asking her to party with him that night in exchange for this favor. Frightened, but aware that the lives of the two men were depending on her, she agreed. Herold let the desertors go, and duly came to collect her from her parents' kitchen that night. The incident shows how Herold was ultimately concerned with extracting as many benefits from others as possible, whether it was a warm meal, alcohol, a fine hotel room or the company of a pretty girl.