MOVIE REVIEW: The Captain
THE CAPTAIN-- 4 STARS
There is a sly yet unspeakable joy to the poker face being played by Mario actor Max Hubacher throughout The Captain from Music Box Films. It’s in the way his Captain Herold clenches his mouth and purses his lips before choosing his words. His ever-so-slight squint to fix his gaze after darting his eyes to survey each situation hides a ghastly ruse. The man wearing the ranking uniform is a fraud, a deserter executing a masquerade to save his own hide.
The audience carries this dramatic irony to know the twisted truth as matters become more heinous with each “Heil Hitler” salute. The most deranged trait of all is that The Captain is a true story. The film opens for a run in Chicago at the famed Music Box Theatre and director Robert Schwentke will be attending in person for a post-film Q&A following the 7:30pm screening on August 3rd.
LESSON #1: THE REASONS FOR IMPERSONATING AN OFFICER — Plenty of people probably have an impression they do of their boss when they aren’t looking, but this is different and deadly. Starving, desperate, and on the lam when we first meet him during the final days of World War II, Hubacher’s pretender has taken his lucky discovery of an officer’s foot locker inside a burned-out car and turned it into a ladder to receive carte blanche treatment. The fearful favor is normally all people want with authority, but Herold uses it to get away with unspeakable acts under fake authority.
Emulating what he has observed to walk the walk and talk the talk, Herold acquires a troupe of unwitting minions like Freytag (Milan Peschel) and supportive muscle like Kapinski (Frederick Lau). He arrives with pomp to a countryside prisoner camp, an expertly dingy and detailed creation of production designer Harald Turzer, art director Jurek Kuttner, and set decorator Alwar Thaler. Herold boasts forged papers and false authority commanded down from the Fuhrer himself and begins to target this “epidemic” collection of looters, thieves, and POWs.
LESSON #2: IF YOU PRETEND TO BE SOMETHING OR SOMEONE LONG ENOUGH, YOU BECOME IT OR THEM — Trying to maintain the dominance he presents himself to represent, Herold metes out punishment fitting of the reputation matching of the pretend ranking, becoming the monster he was trying to escape. He makes allegiances with the ranking military figures and breaks Justice Department protocol to carry out executions, causing order and honor to devolve into madness.
Writer-director Robert Schwentke has boldly moved away from schlock (R.I.P.D., RED) and softness (The Time Traveler’s Wife) for something visceral and chillingly raw. As Herold shows no quarter, neither does Schwentke and this film’s penchant for discomfort. The events portrayed are so imprudently berserk that it borders on unbelievable farce, despite its cited historical inspiration of the man who performed these acts before he was even 21 years old. Hubacher’s steely straight face sells every second, in one of the best performances of the year, drinking the power and never showing weakness. Appalling was the target. Schwentke and Hubacher nailed it.
No cinematic brushstroke paints that alarming ambiguity better than the stark black and white cinematography from Florian Ballhaus (The Book Thief). Bloody messes and frantic nerves are painted with a monochromatic palette and stand through fixed and unflinching framing. The looming orchestral doom and lulls from composer Martin Todsharow add more shades of gray to the aesthetic. If you thought The Death of Stalin earlier this year was dark, this film is an enormous black hole of immorality that makes that comedy look like an after-school special.
LESSON #3: IF YOU’VE DONE SOMETHING WRONG, AT LEAST ADMIT IT — The deeper The Captain tailspins, the worse it is to take glee from the viewing experience. Mirroring a line of Herold’s from the film, Schwentke and company are not hiding those intentions. As much as that effect of corrupt depravity is hard to consider as entertainment, it is wholly impressive to appreciate for its commitment to ferocity, especially when both the film and characters are hellbent to get away with it.