Two films about the Nazis show the difference between engaging with history and exploiting it

Two feature films about Nazis are released this Friday – ‘Scarred Hearts’, directed by Radu Jude, and ‘The Captain’, directed by Robert Schwentke – and the difference between them, aesthetically and ethically, is the difference between engaging with the history and an exploitation of it. The importance of this difference, in the present time of the resurgence of Nazi sympathies and hatreds, is more than theoretical.

Both films are based on true stories. “The Captain” tells the story of Willi Herold (played by Max Hubacher), a German army corporal who, at the age of nineteen, in April 1945, two weeks before Germany’s surrender , deserted from his unit, found a uniform captain in an abandoned car, put it on, pretended to be a captain, found a deserter to command, found other wandering troops to command, and with them took control of a German prison camp for deserters. While the current camp administration awaited the arrival of a court-martial to try its prisoners, Herold – claiming to have direct orders from Hitler – ordered and organized the summary execution of the prisoners. (After the war he was arrested by British occupying forces, tried and executed.)

Schwentke depicts Herold narrowly escaping the fiery pursuit of a wagon train of soldiers seeking to shoot him down or capture him for desertion, but, from the outset, he marks the film by the two polar extremes on which the film is set: fabricated authenticity and simplistic irony. A lone runner comes on the horizon from an open field, followed by what looks like a clown car, from which sounds a circus bleat of a bugle, mingled with gunfire. Soon it is clear: the hurried runner presents himself as a bloodied soldier whom the pursuers, roaring in jeeps, are trying to shoot down.

Shooting in a stone-worthy black-and-white palette, Schwentke mixes the pseudo-documentary style of wearable visual turmoil with the stately aesthetic of big-screen compositions. Wandering down an empty road in an open field, Herold sees an abandoned car and finds apples (he is starving) and also the uniform that transforms his fate. Putting it on, Herold then practices talking like a captain, giving orders to the empty field, being cruelly sarcastic and unctuously imperious, then singing a little theatrical song and juggling three of the apples he found. Such theatrical frivolity – the second of the film’s opening minutes – is found throughout the film, always in close proximity and in contrast to bloody murder scenes.

Robert Schwentke’s “The Captain” tells the true story of Willi Herold (Max Hubacher), a German army corporal who posed as a captain and took charge of a prison camp for deserters.Photography courtesy of Music Box Films

“Captain” Herold encounters a middle-aged soldier, Walter Freytag (Milan Peschel), wandering alone, who claims to have been separated from his unit during the fight. He volunteers to serve under Herold, starts the abandoned car, and drives it forward. They soon encounter another group of unattached soldiers, and Herold now takes them on as well, pretending to be on a special investigative mission in which they can help. Herold composes his command over time, and as circumstances grow more threatening, he invents bigger and bigger lies – and takes on bigger and bigger roles – to survive. Stopped at a checkpoint by the military police, Herold claims that he is on a personal mission under the direct orders of Hitler himself. When the military police take him and his troop to a prison camp, Herold – learning that his military commander, Schütte (Bernd Hölscher), is impatient with the slow pace of justice for deserters – encourages, supervises and openly participates in the summary execution of prisoners.

There, Schwentke delivers the film’s only insightful scene, built around his fascinating character. The frustrated Schütte is outclassed by the camp’s chief legal officer, Hansen (Waldemar Kobus), of the Ministry of Justice, who is appalled by the first outbreak of brutal violence and is determined to prevent further killings. He’s a man of law and order, an advocate for procedural justice, and he’s calling on a senior Justice Department official to back him up. But, relying on Herold’s claim of Hitler’s support, Schütte depended on Nazi Party and Gestapo contacts to overthrow Hansen and carry out the wanton massacre. The footage is filmed in a series of dueling phone calls that show with vivid clarity the pathologies of a dictatorial party regime and the delusions of a well-meaning apolitical official who hopes to maintain a modicum of fairness and justice in capricious diet. and depravity.

The idea is good, but it remains a sketch of an idea, just like more or less all the substance of “The Captain”. Schwentke, seemingly concerned with pushing the action forward, empties the film of moments when characters might speak in ways that reveal their thoughts (or fears or deceptions) without advancing the plot. As a result, “The Captain” is completely devoid of history, ideology and context. Rather, it’s constructed as an action film, with the climactic dramatic sequence of the massacre of the camp prisoners, which Schwentke films with a candid look at ugliness in beautiful footage that drips with pornographic majesty. He titillates an audience fascinated by violence; he retains the most repulsive gore while indulging in composing and lighting images that revel in his own power to somehow make it beautiful.

There should be no artistic taboos on the dramatization of violence or, for that matter, Nazi violence, but there is a question of what the representation is for, the emotions that are stirred up and the ideas that are realized. . Towards the end of the film, Herold – after escaping from the camp with a handful of German soldiers who survived a British bombardment by his side – forms an “express judicial justice” brigade, a death squad which goes from town to town murdering and plundering. Shortly after, he was arrested by the German military police, a few days before the German capitulation. What happens there, in this brief scene of discussion with his three military judges, offers more substance and reflection on the regime than the rest of the film that preceded it. A title card following it cites Herold’s 1946 arrest by British occupying forces, trial and execution by guillotine. The story suggested in this title card—the retrospective, trial-based reconstruction of Herold’s actions—suggests a much more authentic and analytical film of life in the Wehrmacht as the country crumbled than the foreground spectacle that Schwentke actually achieved.

Plus, “The Captain” ends with one of the ugliest, most disgusting pranks I’ve ever seen in a movie, included with the end credits scrolling over it. The wartime car that is used in the film and marked as Herold’s “express court” appears, in a present-day German town, with five or six armed soldiers in Nazi uniforms terrorizing and rob ordinary people who sit on park benches or walk around. Does Schwentke want to show the inability of ordinary people to resist an armed mob, even (or especially) in Nazi garb? It’s impossible to know, because Schwentke doesn’t include the vocals – the footage only features dark, eerie music on the soundtrack.