Grade: B+
Entire family: No (age 14 and up?)
2017, 120 min., Black and White
War drama (w/dark comic moments)
Music Box Films
Not rated (would be R for language, violence, some nudity)
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Featured audio: German 5.1 Dolby Digital
Bonus features: B
Amazon link

The Captain (2017) isn’t a movie for kids. Then again, neither is Schindler’s List, which my daughter saw in her 10th grade history class during their discussion of the holocaust.

Both are films that stay with you, and for the same reason: mass executions by Germans during WWII. Except that The Captain isn’t a holocaust film. Set in Germany during the final months of the war, it’s based on the true story of Willi Herold, who became separated from his unit and may or may not have deserted. In the film, as in real life, he stumbles onto an abandoned staff car in which he finds a suitcase containing the uniform of a Luftwaffe captain. After celebrating his good fortune he dons the uniform. And putting it on and acting the part begins to have the same effect on him as the ring did on Gollum.

Shot in black and white in German with English subtitles, The Captain is a fascinating film, and not just because it’s so totally different from all the other WWII films that depict the battles, struggles, and individual stories of bravery and survival. It’s also a provocative psychological study. We wonder:

Is it the uniform and the role-playing that makes this corporal suddenly behave like a sadistic German officer? Is it another example of the intoxicating effect that power has? Is it an individual pursuit of irony, with Willi getting back at life for almost having him executed as a deserter by embracing some deserters and “lost” soldiers as his own private army but choosing to execute others? Is Willi the victim of PTSD, or is he representative of what happens when soldiers realize their side has lost and order and discipline start to break down? Did the situation bring out the evil in him, as it did with the British schoolchildren in Lord of the Flies? Or was Willi evil from the start, and the universe just provided him with a chance for that evil to come out?

And why is he so smugly composed? What possesses him to claim he’s acting under direct orders from the Fuehrer? Why that whopper of a lie? Was it practical, or did he want to see if he could pull off the ultimate charade? Was it a deadly game to him? Did a Darwinian mindset take hold of him—kill or be killed?—or did he execute deserters because they reminded him of his own desertion, something that ate away at him?

The Captain raises all sorts of intriguing questions—only some of which you wonder during the film. It’s afterwards that the questions seem to flow, and younger viewers who in school read Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage may recognize a familiar tale of a deserter who gets a second chance. Crane’s deserter becomes a hero; Willi Herold becomes a war criminal. Based on a true story, is this a cautionary tale about how easy it is for one man to get others to follow him . . . and even kill for him? Is he a micro reflection of what Hitler was able to do on a grander scale?

The Captain isn’t rated, but because of strong language, violence, and brief nudity, it would earn an R rating. But, like Schindler’s List, it’s something that could be seen by high school age children if there’s a discussion attached to it and you actually puzzle over some of those questions evoked by the film. Or, of course, you can it watch once the kids are in bed. The Captain is directed by Robert Schwentke, who’s best known for the action-comedy Red and two sequels in the Divergent series: Insurgent and Allegiant. Willi is played by Max Hubacher (The Team TV series).

Language: Several f-bombs and milder swearing.

Sex: No graphic sex, but women are seen topless in several instances and there’s a very brief shot of male frontal nudity

Violence: An officer gets blown to pieces by bomb, and a lot of men are shot point-blank; the biggest violence involves the executions (some individual, some mass) of deserters and prisoners of war who had deserted

Adult situations: One scene of debauchery in which there’s a lot of drinking, smoking, and implied sex, plus other scenes of drinking and smoking

Takeaway:  Possibly the best WWII film in German since Downfall