In 'The Captain,' Clothes Make The Man — And The Monster A German deserter in the waning days of World War II dons a discarded Nazi officer's uniform for warmth, but soon finds himself wielding its authority with unnerving and violent cruelty.


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In 'The Captain,' Clothes Make The Man — And The Monster

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World War II movies often focus on courage under fire and battlefield heroics. But the German film "The Captain" takes another tack. It's set in the last moments of the Nazi regime's collapse and centers on a German deserter. Critic Bob Mondello says the captain is a true story of deception gone haywire.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: An open field - you hear the war coming before you see it - a trumpet, gunshots, then the roar of a truck.


MONDELLO: Willi Herold, a German deserter, is being chased across the field by drunken Nazi soldiers. They're in no rush. Herold's starving, half-frozen, exhausted. Somehow, though, he makes it to the trees bordering the field and survives another day.

Herold's not the only German deserter in these last few days of the war. He comes across an abandoned car - inside, a suitcase with an officer's uniform, coat, boots, hat. He puts them on mostly for warmth and starts singing to himself - it is good luck - then freezes in panic as another German soldier comes into view and salutes him, asking to be attached to the captain.


MILAN PESCHEL: (As Freytag, speaking German).

MONDELLO: It takes Herold a moment to realize this means him. The new soldier fixes the car and becomes his driver. The uniform works on others, too. Herold, played by babyfaced Max Hubacher at first seems an innocent, using the uniform's power benignly, say, to get a free meal. But when some locals bring him a soldier who's been stealing food, essentially what he's doing himself by getting that free meal, he realizes he either does what a real Nazi captain would do, or they'll see through him. So he does.


MONDELLO: Things escalate. He picks up a squad of military police, blowing off their questions...


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, speaking German).

MAX HUBACHER: (As Willi Herold, speaking German).

MONDELLO: ...By claiming he's operating on the highest authority...


HUBACHER: (As Willi Herold, speaking German).

MONDELLO: ...And finds he can intimidate other officers, even ones who cite regulations and outrank him, by being the cruelest of the cruel, overseeing a bacchanal of brutality.


MONDELLO: Remember that Stanford University prison experiment where students divided randomly into guards and prisoners took on the traits associated with those roles, guards becoming vicious, prisoners sullen? Writer-director Robert Schwentke has imagined that dynamic in a society that's both monstrous and in mid-collapse, social restraints in full retreat.


MONDELLO: He's ensured that "The Captain" is as gorgeously shot in black and white as it is filled with hideous images - men flailing and dying as the leading character eats a sumptuous dinner unconcerned, whole platoons blown apart by airborne bombs, the near-dead walking through a field of skeletons. "The Captain" is so violent that it starts to feel gratuitous until a postscript calculated to leave audiences slack-jawed. I won't spoil its surprise, but I will say that it happens behind the final credits. And once it starts, if you're anything like me, you won't see a single name. I'm Bob Mondello.

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