In the dying days of World War 2, hunted by his comrades and the military police, terrified young German deserter Willi Herold (Max Hubacher) stumbles across an abandoned officer’s uniform and, freezing, dresses in it for warmth.

Exhilarated by the seductive power of the uniform and the authority it confers, Willi assumes the role and soon gathers around him a rag-tag band of fellow lost soldiers, his own special ‘task force’, convincing them that he is on a secret mission from “the highest authority”, Hitler himself. Together, they travel the countryside, requisitioning supplies and indulging in vigilantism, summarily executing fellow deserters who rob the local farmers.

Arriving atthe Aschendorfermoor prison camp housing German army deserters and political prisoners, Willi convinces the authorities he is there to conduct an inspection on behalf of the Fuhrer and assumes command. Intoxicated by the power he wields with impunity, Willi and his men embark on an orgy of slaughter, beating, torturing and executing over 100 prisoners…

Marking both a return to his native Germany after 15 years in Hollyweird and a return to the form of his stylishly nasty wallow in depravity and desire, Tattoo, the clothes definitely maketh the man in Schwentke’s The Captain. First seen fleeing his fellow Nazis, the baby-faced Hubacher initially engages our sympathies. Terrified and desperate, he survives by his wits and his luck, his sweaty fear palpable.

But his discovery of the abandoned captain’s uniform marks both the road to his survival and his damnation as we, the audience, watch, just as complicit as his fellows who suspect the truth, as he grows in confidence, the uniform giving him licence to indulge his basest impulses and Hubacher’s assured performance is one of chilling, almost banal, malevolence, often the only thing separating him from his victims being their bad luck not to stumble across a discarded uniform.

Shot in starkly crisp black and white that serves to cruelly underline the onscreen depravities and based on the real-life atrocities of Willi Herold, a young imposter whose barbarous exploits earned him infamy as the Executioner of Emsland and, ultimately, a date with the guillotine, writer/director Robert Shwentke’s The Captain may not be marketed as a horror film but it may just be one of the year’s best, a dark, chilling meditation on the depths of evil that humanity will sink to when it’s absolved of guilt, responsibility and repercussion.

As a vision of war, The Captain is undoubtedly hellish but for Hubacher’s self-appointed fallen angel it’s better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven, carving out his own little kingdom like a 20thcentury Matthew Hopkins, Schwentke’s film more Witchfinder General than Pasolini’s Salo by way of Gogol’s The Government Inspector, The Captain a brutal, horrifying satire that’s as much an indictment of modern European society as it is Nazi Germany.

Brutal, bleak and darkly comic, The Captain is an unflinchingly pitiless film that proves that, despite ourselves, we all love a man in uniform.

 

Movie Review: The Captain
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