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Here is a nightmare from the German home front in April 1945, collapsing into horror and chaos with the looming reality of imminent defeat. It’s a movie with echoes of Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum or Ralf Rothmann’s To Die in Spring – written and directed by Robert Schwentke, a veteran of commercial Hollywood fare who has gone back to basics with this brutally stark picture, shot by Florian Ballhaus in a crystalline black-and-white: a look inspired, perhaps, by Spielberg’s Schindler’s List.
The drama is based on the bizarre true story of Willi Herold, a German deserter who while on the run chanced upon a Luftwaffe captain’s uniform, dressed up in it and with extraordinary effrontery and cunning played on Germany’s cringing fear of authority by passing himself off as an officer of that rank, claiming to be on a special mission from the Führer to root out deserters and, incredibly, actually presided over a mass slaughter of prisoners at a labour camp – like someone who senses the best way to avoid a witch hunt is to set yourself up as the fiercest witchfinder of all.
Max Hubacher is disturbingly convincing as thi sinister sociopath, instinctively knowing how to lose his temper at the slightest sign of suspicion, doubling down on his claim and brazening it out. But it isn’t that he has fooled anyone exactly. The captain’s uniform, like the emperor’s new clothes, is an imposture that speaks to the dishonesty and cynicism and moral bankruptcy in everyone’s heart.
Schwentke’s movie shows how almost everyone more or less suspects the truth about the phoney “captain”, but goes along with the deception. Other deserters think it expedient to join the irregular “mission” under his protective command, an innkeeper needs an authority figure to execute the looter who has been stealing from him, and finally senior military figures decide they need someone to license the massacre or “simplified court martial” of prisoners who have become expensive to feed.
It is a horrifying parable, with chilling moments, although the story is structurally uneven, with an over-extended “coda” section showing the dissolute tyranny of Herold’s crew after they leave the camp. There is also a slightly bizarre note of black comedy towards the end – Brit audiences might notice hints of Monty Python or even Freddie Starr – and I wasn’t sure about the strange stunt comedy that Schwentke stages over the closing credit roll showing the cast, in full costume, doing some Stanford-experiment-type pranking of the public: demanding they open their bags etc. (That’s assuming the public are not actors as well.)
The film itself had made the point more elegantly. What a chilling performance from Hubacher.
Source: The Guardian
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