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Short Take: The Captain

(Robert Schwentke, Germany/Poland/Portugal/France, Music Box Films, Opening July 27)

The Second World War is winding down and rural Germany is lousy with deserters, among them Willi Herold (Max Hubacher), a baby-faced private whose fortunes take a sudden upturn after he adopts the uniform of a dead captain. Herold’s initial motive for donning the stranger’s garb is to merely shield himself against the frigid spring, but he’s almost instantly greeted with slavish deference by a fellow deserter who mistakes him for a superior. Delighted by his newfound power, Herold assembles a motley crew of subordinates and concocts a special mission authorized by the Führer himself, one that lands them at a work camp for delinquent soldiers over-burdened with detainees—a problem Herold alleviates by arranging for gleefully expedited mass executions.

The Captain is German-born writer-director Robert Schwentke’s first European film in over a decade, following a number of undistinguished Hollywood actioners like Red and R.I.P.D. Echoing the literature of J.G. Ballard and Horacio Castellanos Moya and films such as Tony Manero, this ghoulish tale of garment-as-destiny speaks to the notion that buried in many of us is a violent pathology requiring only opportunity and permission to be unleashed. That Schwentke makes Herold’s victims fellow Germans of Nazi-approved racial profile, rather than Jews, evades certain ethical quandaries of Holocaust narratives and alludes to the ways in which a corrupt nation wreaks damage upon itself. Parable, historical reckoning, and pitch-black comedy, The Captain is clever, well-crafted, and utterly grueling.

José Teodoro is a freelance critic and playwright.