FOG! got to sit down with director Robert Schwentke about his disturbing World War II drama The Captain. Schwentke has made a number of Hollywood films, including RED, Flightplan, and The Traveler’s Wife.
He returned to his native Germany to make The Captain, about a private who, in the last days of World War II, comes across a Nazi officer’s uniform and finds it gives him unlimited — and nearly unquestioned — authority. It’s based on the chilling true story of Willie Herold, who’s played in the film by the remarkable young actor Max Hubacher.
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FOG!: What made you want to tell this story?
ROBERT SCHWENKE: I’m possibly the last generation that looked to their parents and grandparents and could ask the question “Where were you?” So there’s a very personal interest in all of this. I studied philosophy and comparative lit and couldn’t figure out how the country of the poets and the thinkers that was so exporting so much humanism evolved to a point where Hegel and Goethe and Schiller were followed by Hitler. Which will eternally throw a shadow on all things German humanism.
So I was grappling with these things. I was conscious of the various camps of historical discourse in Germany. Some historians believe that it was one man who led the country into the abyss. And had he just listened to the saner voices around him, a lot of the horrible stuff that happened could have been avoided. I believe that camp is the apologists camp. And I think the film Downfall is a direct exponent of that camp. So there are historical reasons for me to be interested.
There are also cinephile reasons for me to be interested. I discovered that there really were only two films made in Germany after 1945 from the perspective of the perpetrators. One was The Wannsee Conference (1984) and Death is My Trade (1977), which is a fictional biography of Auschwitz commander Rudolf Höss.
But we have countless films about the heroes of the time. And this is not a judgment. I’m not saying you shouldn’t make those films. Because to stand up and die for your beliefs against the Nazis was more than most people did and they should be celebrated. And it should serve as an example. But at the same time, we’re the only national cinema that didn’t take itself to task over our own culpability. Japanese films, Polish films, Czech films, Russian films… the Italians have certainly taken themselves to task over their Fascist past. East German films even… they all had cinematic auto-da-fés. And we never had it. And I felt that was symptomatic. Because it also didn’t take place in literature.
And so I wanted to see if it was possible to make a film about the dynamic structure of National Socialism. Because a lot of people had to get out of the way or get with it for this cultural catastrophe to occur. That seemed to be exactly the kind of discourse nobody wanted to have. There’s a set of national myths in Germany, like that there were no deserters. All of these things that came out of the ’50s. You always had to have a certain set of cinematic conventions when making films about World War II, like the “Good Nazi.”
There was always one Nazi who got it. It started in the ’50s. I’m not saying it’s not true, but it became a convention in these post-War German films. I was attracted to this story because it had none of those conventions.
When did you first hear about Willi Herold?
I looked at a variety of stories and I finally found this one and started to research it. I felt it gave me an ability to make a movie about National Socialism and World War II unlike any that has been done. Nothing has been done about that period of the war or from that perspective. It also gave me an opportunity to not just focus on the ordinary soldiers, but all the layers. There’s the judicial layer, there’s the general layer… It also offered a spectrum of perpetrators. Not all of them were ideologically driven. Not all of them were pathological. This was a story that let me do a bit of a system analysis.
We don’t ever learn much about Willi, where he came from or whether he was a true believer or not.
I think it’s clear that he’s not a true believer. I don’t think he was ideologically driven. I think for him, this whole thing was nothing but a game of cowboys and Indians.
I didn’t know the story going in and I never imagined he would go as far as he did. I thought he’d stop after he got himself into a fairly comfortable situation, like at the inn near the beginning, where he’s being served the best food and given the best room. But I was describing the premise to a friend and he immediately guessed that it became this awful abuse of power.
There is no comfortable situation. There’s no safe haven. The world itself has conspired to be the problem. What you’re scratching it as my refusal to explain him in psychological terms. The question of why he did what he did, of course is the question you’re supposed to ask. Only I refuse to give you that answer. Because I believe that the audience is smart enough to figure that out for themselves and find their own answers for it. And those might be different answers from the ones I would have. And the person next to you might have a different set of answers. And once you guys start talking, there’s a discourse.
And that’s the goal.
I’m not trying to do a character study here. I’m not trying to psychologically analyze this guy. What I’m trying to do is kick loose a discourse. And I’m always a little disappointed when people say, “I wish there had been an explanation why he was doing what he was doing.” My greatest experiences in art and literature and films are always films that force me to invest a part of myself into it. And that investment creates an experience that generally lingers with me because not all answers have been given. There are questions that linger in my mind that I have to mull over.
How did you find your star, Max Hubacher? He’s amazing.
We did a casting in Germany. There are so many fantastic actors of that generation. Max was the one — I’m being facetious now — that I believe could preside over a massacre. He has the youthful looks, but at the same time, he has a steeliness that I think would work.
The real Willi was only 19…
Max is 21. He’s in acting school. We had to get him out of acting school to make the movie.
The only sense we get that he’s horrified by what he’s set in motion is when we see him screaming — inwardly, as it turns out — at the camp.
Yes, that goes back to an SS commander who made Lithuania “Jew free.” I read his diaries. I read a lot of diaries in preparation for this film. And even this 200 percent ideologically driven Fascist who had absolutely no compassion or empathy for Semites, he was a full-on, hard-core anti-Semite. They were insects to him. But even to this man, the first massacre he witnessed under his command and participated in — he always participated — gave him a shock. And he had physiological and psychological problems after that. It was horrible for him.
Now, a normal human being wouldn’t come back the next day and do it all over again. He did. That was interesting to me, that we assume a guy like that would not feel a thing when he shoots and exterminates. But they did. They were still human beings. And that’s why we have that glimpse of — even though he lets it happen, he is still a human being. He will flatten that part of him, but that’s his choice.
So what I’m saying is, “Yes, we’re animals, but we also have a revulsion against doing that sort of thing. And you either give in to one or the other.”
The first soldier to follow Willi (Milan Peschel) so often seems on the verge of standing up and saying something in protest.
Well, that’s another convention. “Somebody’s going to have to stand up and it’s going to be this guy, because he seems uncomfortable.” He’s uncomfortable, but he didn’t stand up. And, again, I didn’t want to give the audience a mouse hole to which they could escape. “Oh, finally he says something. That’s what I would have done!”
Tell me about your decision to use black-and-white: Was it to make you feel like you were there at the time?
No, not at all. It was because of the violence.
To tone it down?
Yes, and to also introduce a layer of abstraction. It was important to me that the film didn’t look like a sumptuously mounted historical narrative, like a costume pageant, which most of the German World War II films are. We wanted to make a film that felt modern and didn’t pretend like we were recreating a time that we only knew from research. So the black-and-white, I think, enabled us to do that in a way that color would not have. And also, the music was another way of achieving a sort of modernism.
All history is written looking back. It always is. And right now there’s a concerted effort to rewrite a lot of American history. A lot of the schoolbooks are being rewritten, so that’s a continuum. This is a movie that says, “That’s always what history is. It’s being used by the present, or by the biases and interests of the present.”
How hard was this to shoot, given some of the truly harrowing things that happen? Did any of the cast members have difficulty with some of the scenes?
Oh, you bet. That was horrible. I love actors. And I love the actors I work with and it’s my responsibility to create an atmosphere around them where they feel safe and taken care of and where they can’t make any mistakes. Each actor had a moment where they kind of started to cry or started to shake or they had a really hard time. It’s my job to deal with that and to give them the ability to deal with it.
Did it get to you as well?
Oh yeah. There was one time where it kind of hit me. Mostly that stuff occurred around the barracks scene and the pit scene. We made the decision to never look into the pit. So there’s no footage of that. We never shot it. But we always had actors in the pit and they were pleading for their lives. So my actors standing around the pit as soon as I would say “Cut,” they were just beside themselves. They were sobbing.
Can you comment on the credits sequence — did the people who were being harassed know what was going on?
The idea came when I was reading reports about a lot of ISIS groups appearing in North African villages armed to the teeth. And they would say “We’re judge and jury now and if you violate our rules, we will chop off your head or your hand or your fingers.” And they do. When you read about it happening in North Africa, it feels far away. And it’s not that far away, because it did happen in Germany. And this whole refugee crisis, all that happened in Germany not too long ago.
Which is why I think we, as Germans, deal with it differently. Because most people who are making the laws went through it. They were displaced by war. What I wanted to create was a continuity. It’s not as pat as, “Oh, there are National Socialists on the rise again in Germany and they’re marching again.”
It just wants to say, this was not something singular. There’s a great line in Hannah and Her Sisters, where Max von Sydow says about the Holocaust, “I stopped asking why it happened and I started asking, ‘Why doesn’t it happen more often?'” In the last five years, the world has changed in a way that I find deeply, deeply scary and upsetting.
The Captain is now playing in limited release.