After spending the last fifteen years making big budget Hollywood movies like RED, Flight Plan, Insurgent and Allegiant, filmmaker Robert Schwentke returns to his native Germany for his new film The Captain.

Based on a fascinating and disturbing true story, the film follows German soldier Willi Herold (played by Max Hubacher) in the final weeks of World War II as he’s being chased and shot at, presumably having deserted the army. He comes across an abandoned Nazi captain’s uniform and soon makes use of the authority he commands while wearing it. Eventually finding himself visiting a prison camp for army deserters and claiming to be following orders from the Führer himself, Herold uses the power his uniform wields to horrifying effect. Herold went on to become known as the Executioner of Emsland.

Ahead of the film’s US release on Friday 27th July, James Kleinmann spoke to Robert Schwentke.

Robert Schwentke
Director Robert Schwentke. © Jennifer Howard. Courtesy of Music Box Films.

James Kleinmann: As well as directing The Captain you also wrote the screenplay. How did you first come to hear about this story and what drew you to want to put it on screen?

Robert Schwentke: I discovered the story about twelve years ago, so it’s been a long time gestating. I was actively looking for a story that would allow me to take a look at the dynamic structure of National Socialism. I’m a big fan of Lacombe, Lucien by Louis Malle for example and also Japanese films that deal with the trauma of World War II. I’m not an historian, but I’m a cinephile and I found that all these nations had conducted their own cinematic examinations of perpetrators post-World War II and I couldn’t find anything like that in German cinema, which came as a great surprise to me. There are really only two films from the perspective of the perpetrators, that are not about heroes of the war. This isn’t a judgement, this is just a fact. There were heroes who died for what they believed in and they stood up against totalitarianism, which is a hell of a lot more than most people did at the time so there should be films about them, that should be celebrated.

The absence of – I’m being facetious here – the ‘self-lacerating’ mode of filmmaking I found startling. I studied literature and I also couldn’t find anything in German literature and I refused to believe that it was symptomatic and I thought ‘no, I think we can do this, I think we should do this’ and that was the nucleus of my desire to make a film that approached the subject matter in a more complex way morally speaking, that would not allow the audience a figure to immediately identify with morally and hide behind. There’s not going to be a sane voice in the room.

Max Hubacher as Willi Herold in THE CAPTAIN. Courtesy of Music Box Films.

Was always going to be told from the perspective of the perpetrators?

Yes, because it confronts the audience with a different set of questions than a film where the moral delineations and the proper moral conduct is clearly defined. So coming from a cinephile’s point of view and feeling like there was something missing in German cinema I went on a search for stories and I found a whole slew of them. Most of them were so hideous and heinous that they could never have been turned into films. I finally found the story about Willi Herold and to me as a storyteller at least, not as a moral human being, it felt like its one redeeming quality was that it would allow me to really take a look and analyse all layers of the system.

It wasn’t just a myopic soldier in the field narrative, it was a narrative that connected the very bottom rung of the ordinary soldier with the highest echelons of power the generals and I thought that was really interesting. I also felt that it contained a lot of elements that were consciously built into the National Socialist system, an overlap of responsibilities for example which was of course meant to bring out the worst in everybody because they all felt that they had to do more than what was required. This very absurd, fascicle adherence to rules and the constant use of euphemisms, like what they did at Abu Ghraib.

At a certain point they said ‘we’re not going to call it torture anymore because that’s loaded, we’re going to use a term that is designed not to put an emotional wall up when you hear it.’ A similar system of course was employed by the Nazis. They always talk about ‘the thing’ that needs to get done and ‘we’ve got to get this thing done’ and finally ‘this thing is going to happen’ and of course when you see what ‘the thing’ is you realise that they are all murderous bastards.

But, as we see in the film, they’ve got their paperwork in order for ‘the thing’…

Correct! That is very important especially in the last days of the war. They all know it’s coming, they don’t know when it’s coming. They didn’t know it was two weeks away because they had been hearing about how the war was going to end for two years. There was no reliable news network. They were just continuing to flail in a system that was already dying but they felt that if they continued to adhere to what they had been adhering to so far they would be covered and of course… it’s the ‘Three Days of the Condor” thing, you know not getting caught in a lie is not the same as not lying.

How well documented is the story of Willi Herold?

It’s not a well-known story. There is a book written by the presiding judge, a British judge because Will Herold was tried by a British military court. The judge was so fascinated by this guy because he felt that had it not been a time of war this young man could’ve developed differently and I do agree with him. I don’t think that outside the context of the war this particular character would’ve become a criminal. There are other characters in the film who would’ve been criminals war or not, they’re just using the occasion of the war to do what they would’ve done to do legitimately what they would’ve done anyway.

I read that book by the judge and it was interesting and I went on to read the last surviving case file which is in Oldenburg in the north of Germany, in the State archive of Oldenburg. In addition to the court transcripts, which is really what the film is based on which I mostly adhere to. In addition to those court transcripts there was a fair amount of letters and diaries written by folks who had either survived or had been around when Herold was there. Even in the north it’s not a commonly known story, which made it all the more enticing to me because I felt like if it was a story that everyone already knew and had opinions on that would be counterproductive to my goals.

Can we talk about the look of the film, your cinematographer is again Florian Ballhaus and The Captain marks the ninth time you’ve worked with him…

Yes, I’ve known him almost as long as my wife!

You’ve chosen to shoot the film in black and white. I was just thinking how immersive I find black and white, and certainly with The Captain. That word ‘immersive’ is generally used these days to market formats like 4DX, 3D and Ultra HD, but black and white to me is often much more so.

Well, Godard said that ‘black and white is the truth and colour is the lie’. The thing was how do you deal with a film about violence without making a violent film and we made certain decisions that hopefully allow the horror and the pervasiveness of the horror to be felt and to shine through and to be this rumbling atmosphere that can be turned on or off at any given moment because that’s what the experience must have been like in a camp like that. And not showing too much and exploiting dramaturgically speaking the violence. Everybody has different limits. I just read somebody saying that it was pornographic what we had done and I find that hard to follow because I don’t feel that we exploited it in a pornographic way.

I think you need to show a certain amount of violence to not betray the victims. If you talk about pain you can’t pretend it’s not there and I also don’t know why you would want to make a very tasteful contemplative film about something so distasteful and awful, that I find immoral.

With Florian, our work together, we never start with shots. We always start with a reading of the script and with very general terms. We start at the very bottom of the pyramid. ‘What is this about? What is it that we want to say? What does this scene mean? How is the transition from this scene to that scene? Where do we want the audience located?’ That’s always a big question for us. ‘Where do we want the camera? Do we want the audience to be inside of it or outside of it?’ It finds its way into every decision that we make, but it’s all based on an understanding of what we want to do because I think in the end theme is the only thing that is a yardstick to tell you whether you’re going in the right or wrong direction. How do you know otherwise? What is the yardstick if it’s not that, especially in a story like this?

So we slowly narrow in on ‘we want the camera to be here, far away, we want the camera to be close.’ We knew that we wanted the violence on camera to be sharp and short. We knew we wanted the off-screen violence to be pervasive but never explicit. The pit in the prison camp and our camera work was all designed with contraction and expansion of information in mind. We are very pragmatic when it comes to that, we try to find the right spot for the camera to capture what we want the audience to understand.

Max Hubacher as Willi Herold in THE CAPTAIN. Courtesy of Music Box Films.

For most of the film there isn’t a tradition score, it’s an unnerving soundscape like the ‘rumbling atmosphere’ you mentioned earlier. How would you describe it and why did you choose to score the film in that way?

First of all I’m a “vinyl-aholic”, a “music-aholic!” I’m a big collector of avant-garde analogue synthesiser music, most of which was academic in nature because the machines were so expensive that they could only be purchased institutionally. I’ve come to enjoy sound, tones that are not yoked to a melody but just a certain quality of sound. So that’s my personal bias and for this movie it was important that it was clear to the audience that we were making a movie today looking back which of course is how all history is written and which is how all history is viewed. Unfortunately in a lot of historical films they pretend that somehow their research wasn’t just that, but they really know how it was.

Like they’ve made use of a time machine…

Exactly and what that leads to is a finite construct that creates distance between it and me today. So the music was a big key in communicating to the audience that this was a movie of today. The colour shot was a way to communicate that. The music also. I didn’t want it to be about what the scene was about. I started this on Insurgent where the composer actually composes parts of the music prior to ever seeing a single frame. So all he has is my conversation and the script and he can think and dream and he comes up with things and actually on Insurgent those were the things I preferred and I said ‘wait a minute what if we did an entire score like that’, so on The Captain I was able to do that. The entire score was written before I ever started editing. I edit while I shoot, so while I was shooting I had a little digital box of these cues from my composer who I had talked to and I tried them out and I would give him feedback and I would say ‘give me this a little longer’ or ‘can you take out the propulsion here’ and that was all it was. It makes music into its own element of the film.

It doesn’t degrade music and reduce it to a subservient way of fixing mistakes or enhancing something or making sure that even the lowest common denominator gets that this person is sad.

You mentioned the colour shot. How about the chilling end credits sequence, where Will and other characters drive through present day Germany in their Nazi uniforms and 1940s vehicle harassing people. What was the idea behind that and why did you want to include it?

Well, the film kind of comes without a moral manual, an explicit verbalised moral manual. The film of course has a strong point of view in its execution and its heightened tone, but I knew that for some people the experience of watching this film would be so off kilter to them because so many things that people are used to are not being done in this film. So I wanted in the end to give them some certainty about why we had made the film. The ending was in and out. Fifty percent of the time I didn’t like it and fifty percent of the time I felt it was necessary. Most people who see the film feel the same way. There are some people who say ‘well, this is really unnecessary’ and I agree with them it is unnecessary and then there’s another set of people who say ‘oh my God, I’m so glad you had that in there, because I was really wondering why did you subject us to all this and it all came together when I saw the ending’ and I say they’re right too. So it’s one of those things. Is it obvious? Yes, of course it’s obvious. People who don’t like it are less inclined to come up to me and tell me ‘ I hated that ending’ than people who liked it. Personally, I’m now happy it’s in there, but it’s still a living organism for me at this point.

Max Hubacher as Willi Herold in THE CAPTAIN. Courtesy of Music Box Films.

What about Max Hubacher who plays the lead role of Willi Herold and is in nearly every scene of the film. How did you find him and how did you collaborate with him to create this fascinating character who’s both compelling and a blank slate in some ways.

We did two sets of castings with all the young actors. There’s a fantastic generation of new young actors in Germany. Max was both times the one who I felt was most convincing. I actually believe that he could preside over a massacre, which with some of the other people of that age is tougher to believe. Max was 21, he’s still in acting school or I think he just finished. He got time off to do this film. We did absolutely intense rehearsals and he worked very hard and I worked hard with him and it was a good collection of actors who were around him. I always love the idea of having neophytes and old hands together.

For example Bernd Hölscher who plays Schütte the guy that gets blown up in the camp, he had never been in a movie before. They really supported each other.

There was one tricky thing about Max’s character Willi Herold. I started out writing the story trying to answer for myself ‘why did this guy do that?’ which of course is the natural question to ask and I felt all the answers that I could come up with were reductive and simplistic and I realised that the endeavour I was embarking on wouldn’t benefit from explaining it. So we consciously decided to psychologically speaking not categorise him, but leave kind of a void, kind of a white space there, hopefully forcing the audience to project into that white space and try to figure it out for themselves which is the whole exercise of course.

That was tough for Max because you still as an actor have to understand why you do what you do in the moment and it’s important too for the audience to be on the journey with him and to understand why he makes the choices and what his choices are. So that was something that we really had to be on our toes with. All the other characters have a very strong psychology that they’re grounded in. There’s a spectrum of people but you understand ‘ok, this guy’s ideological’, ‘this guy is pathological’, etc. and everything in between. With Max curiously it became easier because it’s Dialectic. You have the thesis of who he is, which is not really known to us, then there’s the antithesis of the captain which contains elements of the thesis but is a different construct and then you have the synthesis of course which I think is beyond his control.

When I say it got easier, we decided to never talk about the synthesis. We shot the movie mostly chronologically and we said ‘we don’t know enough yet, we can sit here and make these decisions, but we won’t know how far we have to go with this’. As shooting the last days in the camp prior to the air raid and post air raid grew closer we intensified our approach to questioning who is this next guy Willi becomes what is the synthesis of what we’ve just done and we decided to try to combine a libidinous child with someone who never hears the word no and who is in power. So I guess absolute power does what absolute power does. But with him it’s the only time you see him laugh. Those moments where he laughs and sings they could be in a different context a sign of youth and a sign of enjoyment, but of course with him in this context it’s a dance on the volcano.

We see how wearing the Nazi captain’s uniform changes how Willi behaves and how he’s perceived, what was it like for you as filmmakers and actors to be around these costumes and to wear them, what effect did they have on you?

I think it did different things to different people. For Alexander Fehling I don’t think it mattered that he was wearing a uniform, which is curious because I talked to him exactly about the question you asked and he said ‘no I could play the character in a pullover and in loafers the same way because that’s who he is’. But for Max I think once he’d got the uniform on there was something he felt. For me, I put one on and I just felt icky, but then again I have a natural built-in mistrust of all thing authority and I think finally the movie is about how you always have to question authority because if you don’t then you’re complicit.

The Captain opens at New York’s Quad cinema on Friday 27th July. Q&A with Robert Schwentke moderated by screenwriter Mark Bomback (War for the Planet of the Apes) Friday 27th July at 6.45pm and Robert Schwentke Q&A moderated by screenwriter Scott Silver (8 Mile, The Fighter) Saturday 28th July at 6.45pm. The film will expand across the US in August 2018 including a run in Los Angeles at the Landmark Nuart Theatre with Robert Scwentke Q&As at the 7pm screenings on Friday 10th August and Saturday 11th August. For information on other US cities head to the official website for The Captain.