Der Hauptmann (2018): Written and directed by Robert Schwentke. Starring: Max Hubacher, Milan Peschel, Frederick Lau, Bernd Hoelscher, Waldemar Kobus, and Alexander Fehling. Running Time: 118 minutes.
A man- dirty, ragged, desperate, possibly a deserter- is fleeing from a group of Nazis who appear to be hunting out for nothing more than sport, calling out “little pig, little pig” as he runs. He manages to shakes them off in the woods, but finds life as a vagabond in wartime Germany to be no less violent or deadly than life on the front. He finds an abandoned car with the full uniform of a Luftwaffe officer that fits him perfectly. After putting it on, another soldier (also a deserter?) mistakes him for a real officer and offers his services. Thus begins his wild and increasingly cruel existence as the Hauptmann.
We never learn his real name. Who he is, where he came from, what led to him being hunted; he betrays none of it, stuffing it all deep within himself in his fight to survive from one minute to the next. And what a strange and surreal fight it is. In a world where all revolves around whether your papers are in order, the man continuously bluffs his way past one obstacle after another by insisting he’s been entrusted with a secret mission by Adolf Hitler himself. Soon he’s practically handed control over a small concentration camp with the expectation he will single-handedly solve its overcrowding problems. If you have ever seen a single film about Nazi Germany before, you can probably guess where the end of this particular road lies.
That the main character remains such an enigma from start to finish is ultimately the main stumbling block holding this film back. The ever-more-complicated lies he’s forced to spin to keep up the charade leads to him ordering and/or personally committing heinous war crimes, but because we know nothing of who he was before, we don’t know if he was already someone with a propensity for murdering people in cold blood or not. Does he go through any sort of personal transformation, and does this hurt or trouble or haunt him in any way? Is it all the act of a supremely skilled con artist, or is he really as fervent an ideological Nazi as he pretends to be?
Perhaps the movie is simply meant as a meditation on the moral entropy we are all prone to, especially in times of crisis. Perhaps we are witnessing an adaptation of Dante, seeing one man arrive and welter in the deepest pit of hell. This would certainly fit with how the tone of the shift continues to shift into more surreal and debauched territory in its second half, including a shot of the man wandering alone across a literal carpet of human skeletons in a forest before being swallowed up in the darkness of the pines.
Perhaps the real story, the real narrative arc, lies with Freytag, the first soldier to join the man. At first, he seems a simple man and a simple soldier (if there is such a thing) content to help as best he can. But you can see the shift in his eyes as he slowly begins to realize something is terribly off about the man he’s sworn himself to.
Ironically, for all its horrors, this is a stunningly beautiful film to watch. Shot in crisp and piercingly clear black-and-white, every frame is packed with a richness of detail few color films could hope to match. A steady knowledge of composition is clearly at play, because sequence after sequence provides us with worlds of information about the various characters and their relationships to one another without ever needing to explain much of anything.
Still, at least a few moments of introspection on the man’s part would have done much. I can’t help but feel that the film does itself a disservice by ignoring a lot of potential depth in its thematic material. This is, apparently, based on a real-life war criminal named Willi Herold, but as of this writing I don’t know enough about him to ascertain whether or not the film is historically accurate. As it stands, I see it as much more of a moral allegory for the depravity people are always and ever capable of, once enough societal restrictions are lifted. This is a remarkable film I will not forget seeing anytime soon.