The Captain (Der Hauptmann) director Robert Schwentke: "There's certain conventions in German cinema." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
In the first instalment of my conversation with Robert Schwentke at the Quad Cinema, the director of RED (Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman), R.I.P.D. (Ryan Reynolds, Jeff Bridges, Mary-Louise Parker), and Flightplan (Jodie Foster, Peter Sarsgaard, Sean Bean) talks about his latest film The Captain (Der Hauptmann), shot by Florian Ballhaus and starring Max Hubacher with Alexander Fehling (Giulio Ricciarelli's Labyrinth Of Lies, Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds), Milan Peschel, Frederick Lau, Bernd Hölscher, Waldemar Kobus, Samuel Finzi, and Wolfram Koch.
Max Hubacher stars as Willi Herold in The Captain
Robert Schwentke also discusses with me the significance of the uniform for Emil Jannings in FW Murnau's Der Letzte Mann; Heinz Rühmann in Helmut Käutner's Der Hauptmann Von Köpenick, based on Carl Zuckmayer's play; being a "big fan" of Bierkampf director and star Herbert Achternbusch; Heinz Schirk's Die Wannseekonferenz and Theodor Kotulla's Aus einem Deutschen Leben; certain conventions of German cinema, and a Brothers Grimm fairy-tale connection to the mythical woods in The Captain.
The Captain is an unsparing look at what happens when men are worn down by war and by having lived for far too long within a system using cruelty and lies as its bread and butter.
It is April 1945 and the war will be over in two short weeks. German Corporal Willi Herold (Max Hubacher), a deserter who only just escaped capture from the army by hiding in a hollow space beneath a tree, comes across an abandoned vehicle on a country road. It contains a basket of apples and a captain's uniform which, not counting the length of the pants, miraculously fits the desperate young man.
We are shackled, like it or not, to the perceptions of the perpetrator (just as we were attached at the opposite end of the spectrum, to Géza Röhrig's Saul in László Nemes's Oscar-winning Son Of Saul). Director/screenwriter Robert Schwentke tells the real-life tale of a war criminal in stunning black and white images. He walks a fine line.
Heinz Rühmann in Helmut Käutner's The Captain Of Köpenick (Der Hauptmann Von Köpenick)
The distancing effect is not too much and not too little. Hubacher, the actor, never makes us forget that he is a man of the 21st century, plopped into mid-20th century history, which gives the character both a knowing-in-retrospect and a slightly callow air. The ensemble cast surrounding him is very strong. We don't know how much these men suspect about Captain Herold, as motivations stay opaque, while the atrocities they commit speak as load as thunder.
Anne-Katrin Titze: I was amazed by the tonal variety you achieved in The Captain. It was one of the most unpredictable films I've seen in a long time.
Robert Schwentke: Thank you. I take that as a compliment.
AKT: It definitely is meant as one. The way you introduce your protagonist [Willi Herold played by Max Hubacher]! First comes running but then especially the image of him hiding under the roots of a tree. It's as if he's crawling out of the German soil, the underbelly of the forest, a mythological creature; he also has a bit of Nosferatu in his face.
AKT: It's a fantastic way to begin this. Can you talk about that image?
Robert Schwentke on Herbert Achternbusch in Bierkampf: "Lieb ich über alles!"
RS: I can talk generally about influences, aesthetic influences on the film. It was important to me to base our research on mostly German art. And German films and German art movements, such as expressionism and romanticism.
AKT: Is there some Käthe Kollwitz in there?
RS: No, there's no Käthe Kollwitz, but there's Max Beckmann.
AKT: Oh yeah, of course, later on.
RS: And Otto Dix later on and so forth.
AKT: The Dance of Death scenes.
RS: That's right. But there's also the whole hiding under the tree to me is very Brothers Grimm. So that fairy tale characteristic was intriguing to me. Because it comes back at the end of the film.
The beginning and the end of the film are very much meant to be symmetrical in terms of how he [Willi Herold] appears out of the distance and then he disappears in the distance. We actually used the same breaths on the soundtrack in the beginning and in the end. And this idea, you know, of the German mythical woods.
Theodor Kotulla's Aus Einem Deutschen Leben (Death Is My Trade)
AKT: The title is The Captain and you can't help but think of The Captain of Köpenick. Carl Zuckmayer's play [from 1931, based on the story of an impostor wearing a captain's uniform in 1906] begins with a quote by the Brothers Grimm [from Rumplestitskin] and it ends with one. The end one is from the Bremen Town Musicians.
RS: Stadtmusikanten, yes.
AKT: The rooster says to the others: "Something better than death we'll find anywhere! Come along with me!" Were you thinking of that?
RS: I was not so much thinking of that. Obviously in Germany you can't get away from the Hauptmann von Köpenick when it comes to impersonating.
RS: Uniforms, and impersonating higher officers. But I always felt that there was a certain naiveté and a certain kitsch involved in The Captain of Köpenick. It was a very gentle way of dealing with militarism. And that may have been appropriate during the Wilhelminian time, but I did not feel that fascism, or my movie about fascism, would be best served through gentleness.
Robert Schwentke on Willi Herold (Max Hubacher): "The beginning and the end of the film are very much meant to be symmetrical in terms of how he appears out of the distance and then he disappears in the distance."
AKT: Absolutely not.
RS: You know, I find it hard to make a film about such a tasteless subject in a very tasteful way. I wanted to lean into the debauchery. That's also why I want to tell the story from the point of view of the perpetrators. And in Germany there are only two films told from the perspective of the perpetrators since 1945.
RS: There's certain conventions in German cinema.
AKT: Which are the two films from the perspective of the perpetrators?
RS: It's Die Wannseekonferenz [Heinz Schirk's The Final Solution: The Wannsee Conference, 1984] and Aus Einem Deutschen Leben [Theodor Kotulla's Death Is My Trade, 1977].
So this is late Seventies and early Eighties. And that is it. I think there is a surplus - and this is not a judgement at all - of films about the heroes who fought fascism. They are heroes and there should be movies because they did die for what they believed in and that's a hell of a lot more than most people did at the time.
However, it also allows the audience to have a very clear moral voice that they can hang on to. Or, if I'm facetious, hide behind. Because they can identify with the character who either realises that they're doing wrong and turns good or they can identify with the one person who has morally speaking the correct point of view.
Emil Jannings in FW Murnau's Der Letzte Mann (The Last Laugh): "Where the uniform or the loss of the uniform constitutes the tragedy of the narrative."
And I wanted to make something far more confrontational than that. I didn't want to give the audience the mouse hole of being able to identify with the good person, with the one sane voice in the room.
AKT: A few years ago I was introducing a screening of The Captain of Köpenick at the Filmmuseum Munich, with Herbert Achternbusch there.
RS: I'm a big fan of Herbert Achternbusch. Bierkampf (in this film from 1977, Achternbusch in a stolen police uniform visits the Octoberfest) is grossartig! Lieb ich über alles!
AKT: I spoke about the power of dress, the uniform, especially what is done with the collars or lack of collars by Käutner.
RS: There is another movie in German film history that is a great example for that which is The Last Laugh, Der Letzte Mann, Murnau, where the uniform or the loss of the uniform constitutes the tragedy of the narrative. Because the uniform equals status. By losing the uniform he loses status, he feels degraded and what gave him pride.
AKT: Emil Jannings being the doorman in the hotel.
RS: Looking good, representing the establishment.
Claude Lanzmann at Theresienstadt in The Last Of The Unjust
AKT: Even from a lower position. Why I was staring into space for a second - when you said The Last Laugh - there was a documentary about Holocaust humor about two years ago, called The Last Laugh.
RS: Not that.
AKT: In The Captain, the character of Freytag [Milan Peschel] comes from Robinson Crusoe [as in Friday]?
RS: Absolutely. But that was also his real name. Sometimes things just come together and I was very happy that his name was Freytag.
AKT: The identification that you are offering with the casting is really brilliant. There is nothing Heinz Rühmann [the eternally boyish German movie star who is the Captain in Helmut Käutner's 1956 movie of the Zuckmayer play] about Max Hubacher. For one, plus he is so much a Millennial.
RS: Yes he is.
AKT: He is unapologetically of the 21st century. That becomes important not only at the very end. I noticed in particular early on the way he was singing Lilian Harvey's song from Der Kongreß tanzt (Erik Charell's 1931 film about the Vienna Congress).
The Captain poster at the Quad Cinema - opens on July 27 Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
"Das gibt's nur einmal, das kommt nie wieder" - wow - about the lyrics themselves ["This can only happen once, this will never come again"]. He sings it the way someone from the 21st century would sing it, the others, later on, don't.
RS: That's right. I think another convention in German cinema when it comes to World War II films is that the past is always cut off from the present. We're being distanced from the past as if the past had no impact on the present.
And I always wonder, why would you make a film about fascism unless it was relevant for today? Why are you severing the past, presenting it to me as sort of a finite construct?
RS: We wanted to make a film that was unabashedly made today, hence the colour photography, hence the ending, hence some of the performative changes that we made.
AKT: The field that is briefly shown in colour [within the black and white film] made me flash to Claude Lanzmann, the Theresienstadt film, The Last Of The Unjust.
RS: Yes, that's right.
AKT: A second of saying - here look, this is the actual place where things like this happened.
RS: And I also thought it was a good - I don't know what the English word is - Sinnbild. [Symbol - literally an image of sense]. For our way of dealing with the past, still. Because the film also deals with a set of national myths that are still going strong.
The Captain (Der Hauptmann) opens at the Quad Cinema in New York on July 27.