This spiky allegory takes the horrors of Nazi fascism to absurdist lengths.
You’ve heard of ‘Stalag 17’, now meet Stalag 666. This German war drama, set mostly in a POW camp for army deserters in the dying embers of World War Two, mixes a truly hellish vision of defeated Nazis with bitumen-black comedy. It’s a hypnotic, upsetting and often quite brilliant allegory of the corrosive nature of power in which a simple uniform transforms a deserting private into a mass-murdering monster.
The soldier, Willi Herold (‘Mario’s Max Hubacher, brilliantly chilling) is first encountered on the run from fellow Nazi soldiers, in a casually cruel chase that sets the tone for the film. With the war lost, lives have ceased to matter. Herold escapes by the skin of his teeth and stumbles upon an abandoned staff car containing a Luftwaffe captain’s uniform, which he tries on for size. When a fellow deserter mistakes him for an officer and falls in behind him, it begins to dawn on him that he needs to play the part – a brutal role he soon adopts with alacrity. He and a small band of henchmen wash up at an internment camp, where he claims to be on a secret mission from the Führer. From there, the real horror begins.
This is all based on a true story – you’ll want to forget this in its darker moments – albeit told in a heightened style that contrasts with the stark black-and-white cinematography (imagine Swedish absurdist Roy Andersson at his most nihilistic). Also surprisingly, it’s the handiwork of German writer-director Robert Schwentke, who made his last film in his native tongue 15 years ago. He’s since knocked out Hollywood fare of varying degrees of quality, from ordinary (‘The Time Traveler’s Wife’) to plain awful (‘RIPD’), but there’s something in this dark tale that seems to have given him teeth.
From time to time, he surfs perilously close to bad taste – the end credits have to be seen to be believed – but for the most part the risk-taking pays off. In its own very dark way, ‘The Captain’ works as satire on Nazism’s fixation with regulation, paperwork and legal detail as a means of giving itself a veneer of legitimacy. But it also latches on to something even more troubling about the members of this fanatical death cult: when they ran out of people to kill, they started killing each other.
Cast and crew