Max Hubacher in The Captain

It’s Germany in April 1945, only a few weeks before the war in Europe will come to an end. With the Third Reich disintegrating around them, its soldiers are beginning to desert the field — why die for nothing? — including Willi Herold (Max Hubacher), who has hidden beneath a tree trunk to escape the squad of military police pursuing him.

Willi gives them the slip, and then gets even luckier: by the side of a snow-covered road, he discovers an abandoned military vehicle containing a Luftwaffe officer’s freshly pressed uniform. Hurriedly donning the outfit, Willi is no longer a lowly private — he’s now Der Hauptmann (The Captain, opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Aug. 17).

By now you’d think there would be no more interesting Second World War tales left to tell, but writer/director Robert Schwentke’s latest effort proves otherwise. Based on a true story little known in the Anglophone west (though reasonably well-documented in Germany), The Captain tells the story of a chronic grifter who did whatever was necessary to save his own skin.

The events in the film are summarized well by this Wikipedia article, but it’s the way that Schwentke brings them to the screen that makes The Captain the great film that it is. Depicting Herold as a dollar-store pied piper who gathered a disparate band of fellow deserters, hoodlums, and all-around head cases under his ‘command’ and used them to seize control of a military prison camp, one can’t help but draw parallels between the rise of The Captain’s protagonist and that of disgruntled non-com Adolf Hitler.

Viewers will naturally be predisposed to like Willi (who wouldn’t root for a guy trying to escape the clutches of Nazi soldiers?), but expectations soon curdle. Adopting the privileges, powers and (most importantly) attitude of a Luftwaffe officer, Herold is able to weave a mesmeric spell over everyone he meets. In one of the performances of the year, Hubacher depicts this transformation as the work of a cool and calculating sociopath, a man able to think on his feet and make snap decisions with no more than the slightest quiver of his lip.

I must make especial mention of Florian Ballhaus’s stunning black-and-white cinematography – for me, further proof (not that any were really needed) of the superiority of monochrome filmmaking. I understand that some find the absence of color a jarring throwback to the cinema of yesteryear, but there’s a timeless quality to black and white that lends itself especially well to historical dramas and period films such as this.

I spent the first two-thirds of The Captain assuming the film was entirely fictional — its absurdist elements reminding me of the magical realism of Sydney Pollack’s under-appreciated 1969 gem Castle Keep; its ‘inmates have taken over the asylum’ sensibility and febrile atmosphere echoing Pasolini’s Salo (though largely lacking that film’s more, ahem, distasteful elements). This is the sort of film Rainer Werner Fassbinder would make were he alive today: praise doesn’t get much higher than that.

Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...