The horrific story of Willi Herold
‘If you’ve done something wrong, then at least admit it’
Directed by Robert Schwentke
Written by Robert Schwentke
Starring Max Hubacher, Milan Peschel, Frederick Lau, Bernd Hölscher
Exclusive engagement opens Sept. 7
Landmark’s Kendall Square Cinema
Imagine running for your life from a group of merciless Nazi soldiers. They’re hunting you because you’ve deserted your duties to the motherland and they will stop at nothing until they have ensured your death. Once making your miraculous escape, you roam the countryside until you come upon a lone car with nothing in it but a suitcase and a basket full of apples. In the suitcase lies a captain’s uniform. Do you don it for mere protection from the cold? Do you don it for its rank and power? In Willi Herold’s (Max Hubacher) story, he takes the uniform for the latter reason while ravenously eating one of the apples, a telling indication of the young soldier’s future decisions.
Based on the true story of the Executioner of Emsland, the black and white film starts off with the aforementioned heart-pounding chase before settling into a slower-paced examination of Willi Herold’s questionable actions. While practicing the role of captain next to the abandoned car, Herold soon runs into another lost deserter who easily falls for his act despite the comically oversized uniform. On his journey’s end to Work Camp II, Herold gathers a ragtag following of fellow deserters who help bolster his facade.
Upon arrival at Work Camp II, an imprisonment camp solely for German army deserters, Herold begins his reign of terror. Quickly overthrowing the judicial authority of the camp, Herold rallies the trigger-happy and bloodthirsty to the murder of over a hundred prisoners. (The scenes highlighting such murders are definitely not recommended for the faint of heart.)
Now, one might ask, “Why make this film?” It’s gruesome and maddening to watch, but it’s a lesson that doesn’t seem to be understood enough in today’s world. Films like The Captain are created in order to remind us that we should not repeat history and that we can always exercise our free will and do the right thing instead of complying for the sake of ease. As the film shows us, all it takes is an authority figure to bring out the worst in people. The supporting characters who help contrast Herold’s “kill-everyone” sadist personality also display this concept throughout the film:, from Kipinski (Frederick Lau) whose fight-prone personality is only bolstered by Herold’s authority, to Freytag (Milan Peschel) who provides a refreshing conscience against Herold’s inhumane actions until he eventually (and disappointingly) caves at the end.
On another note, the fact that the film is black- and- white reminds me of Schindler’s List, another World War II era film. Both focus on the atrocities that happened during this time, though The Captain is definitely more heavy-handed in showing the audience the unspeakable. Another difference is that the monochromatic aesthetic is only ever interrupted twice throughout the film: when the title of the film flashes on screen in an ominous red, and when the present-day field that has replaced the deserter imprisonment camp is shown.
While his film is chilling and horrifying, Schwentke hopes to provide audiences with Herold’s perspective, shaped by his circumstances and the times, in order to make us think. Would you have done the same were you in his shoes? Would you have done differently? Are we not, in fact, complicit in similar moral dilemmas today? In Schwentke’s words, “They are us. We are them. The past is now.”