In January, Robert Schwentke was invited to the show his latest film “The Captain” at the Max Ophüls Festival in Saarbrucken, a showcase nurtures up-and-coming directors from Germany. It had been some time since he could be described this way himself, having made good in Hollywood directing a number of high-profile films such as “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” “RED” and two installments of the “Divergent” franchise, yet surprisingly, it wasn’t where he was in his career that made Schwentke stand out amongst the invitees to the festival, it was the fact that he was making something even more radical than they were.
“This is the new generation of filmmakers, so four or five of them came up to me after the screening of my film and they said, ‘Well, you know next time you make a film, maybe you think a little longer about it before you make it because this clearly wasn’t thought through and [felt like it was] shot from the hip,” recalls Schwentke. “And I [asked], “What makes you think that” and they said, “It’s so hard to watch. The main character never actually realizes he’s doing something bad and nobody really stands up to him,’ so they have internalized the conventions to the degree that they didn’t understand what we were doing was a revision of said conventions. They thought it was a mistake. And I found that scary, but it also validated my point of view.”
Contrary to what his younger peers may have thought, Schwentke knows what he’s doing with “The Captain” — to a degree that, as he explains, he had to wait to make it until he had accumulated enough technical savvy and historical perspective in order to do it justice, shaking it free of stylistic and narrative conceits that had inured audiences to its implications. A rare German film to deal with the Third Reich through the eyes of a Nazi, “The Captain” tells the story of Willi Herold (Max Hubacher), a 21-year-old private who is introduced scrambling around a forest in the waning days of World War II, just as its become obvious that Hitler and his ilk will soon fall. Stumbling upon the pristine outfit of a ranking captain in an abandoned car, Herold remakes himself to fit the suit, eventually making his way to the concentration camps in Emslandlager where he grows increasingly enamored of the power that comes from others believing he has a direct line to der Führer and his calls to exterminate Jews are no longer part of keeping up the ruse.
Although “The Captain” couldn’t be any timelier given the rise of far-right movements across the world, Schwentke had initially written it just as his career in America was taking off and applying the skill accrued from working on $100 million blockbusters, he realizes an unpalatable subject in undeniable terms, showing the seduction of moral cowardice and complacency as Herold goes largely unquestioned in his rise largely because of his supreme self-confidence, even as evidence mounts to suggest he may not be who he says he is, indicting the blinding power of hatred that fueled the whole Nazi enterprise along the way. The film matches Herold’s boldness, only with real passion behind it rather than desperation as Schwentke tells the story with a verve that actually suggests he’s a first-time filmmaker with something to prove and as the film rolls out into American theaters following a worldwide tour that began last fall at the Toronto Film Festival, he spoke about how he crafted such a compelling drama out of a story that most would like to dust under the rug and the many choices he made to connect the film to the present day.
Yeah, I write my first drafts very quickly, in about 10, 12 days — I kind of vomit them out and then I pick through it and then the real work starts for me. After I had written that first draft [before “Red”], I realized how little I knew about the structures of the army, and having grown up in Germany, I had a pretty good grasp of national socialism and how it happened, but I felt like I needed to get to a much deeper understanding in order to create this world. So that first draft was written Christmas before I started shooting “Red” and over the next years, I read my way through piles and piles of books about psychology [of the time], genocide, massacres and it was sometimes a pretty horrible slog and I never even knew whether this could be a film.
I didn’t know how to really make it. I knew how not to make it. But between the cinematic angle, [brushing up] my knowledge of history and the script itself, it took a long time to get to a point where I felt like okay, I now know what my version of a film about national socialism is going to be like, and I don’t think I would’ve been able to make this film without having made my Hollywood films. I’ve always taken hard turns, going from a thriller to a love story to a comedy so I was very lucky in that I could evade any drawers and try out many tonalities and genres. The accumulation of all of those years of learning my craft is “The Captain,” because it is a mix of all of the above. It has a high-wire act tonality and it has a very specific, very focused way of telling the story, so I don’t think I would’ve been able to make it before [the time I did].
In Germany, a lot of us grew up with a certain set of national myths [that] were all shattered in my lifetime, such as the Clean Wehrmacht [“Clean Hands”], the assumption that the ordinary army member was not involved in genocide, that they were not ideologically driven. Of course, that [and the notion that] there were no deserters from the German army were baloney. There were so many things I grew up with that turned out to be not true [and] that have been rewritten, that I wanted to take a closer look at national socialism because it took a lot of people to get with it or get out of its way for this cultural catastrophe to occur.
So that [was my interest on a] historical level, but then there’s a cinephile level – I’m a big fan of German cinema, but also Japanese, East European and middle European cinema, and we are the only national cinema that didn’t really take itself to task through its films in terms of our culpability from World War II. There are only two films told from the perspective of the perpetrators in Germany and that is in stark contrast to any other national cinema that was touched or involved in this cataclysm. I also studied philosophy and comp lit, so I looked in literature and I couldn’t find anything [there] and I started feeling it was symptomatic for how we had dealt with our own culpability and I wanted to see if we could make a film that had not been made, that didn’t adhere to the usual sort of conventions of a German film about a World War II and about Nazis. Surprisingly, on a financing level, a lot of people rejected it for that reason, because all these conventions have calcified into truth, like that’s how you make a film. There really was a way of telling this story that needed to be done in Germany because people don’t seem to be used to this kind of a discourse. And I think it’s a necessary discourse.
Between the time you wrote it and when you shot it, did your feelings about it change as the world seems to be experiencing a rise in nationalism?
When I started talking about this film with friends, they all responded to it in the same way — “why would you do this to us? And why would you do this to yourself? Do you really want to descend into this pit of hell?” And this story is specifically about national socialism, but I still see this happening all the time [in other parts of the world]. There’s a general truth about humanity in this and about society and about how we relate to each other and about power. It was happening all over — there’s a genocide happening in Indonesia right now — but all of those conflicts felt very far from the world that I and my friends were moving in and sadly over the last five years, I think the movie has gained in relevance because a lot of the things that I thought we had left behind were erupting again all over the place.
We went through the Enlightenment and the Renaissance and the hope was we’d never go back to the Dark Ages, but boom, here they are. I never thought nationalism and chauvinism would be an identity defining trait again. I didn’t think this level of xenophobia was possible. Of course, we’re also faced with a set of strongmen all over the world who are employing very sharp rhetoric for their means, creating fear and using hate, which is always an easier emotion to channel than rational thought, and I think it’s important that we assume that this ends in the worst possible place because that’s the only way to meet this kind of rhetoric. Rhetoric always paves the way for action and when journalists get death threats, then the rhetoric is the reason why.
The eventual blankness that you see in the Captain’s eyes is reminiscent of those photos of the white supremacists you could see recently in Charlottesville — how do you work with Max Hubacher on a performance where you invest in this character, but at the same time, he grows disconnected from humanity?
In the interest of subverting conventions, it’s also a convention of cinema that when you see somebody run for their lives, you immediately side with them. You know nothing about them and that’s the idea. He could be a child molester or a wife-beater – you’re still on his side because you perceive him as the underdog, which I find is a very interesting way of perceiving films. [laughs] That’s the one bit of manipulation that I felt we allowed ourselves in the film. But I refuse intentionally to explain him in psychological terms. I see the appeal because everybody wants to know, “Well, what was it that he did [to be on the run] and why did he do it?” But answering those questions felt counterproductive to my goal, which is for the audience to lean forward to fill in that blank spot in this character because you find your own answers and the guy sitting next to you finds another set of answers and when you start talking, boom, there’s a discourse. That’s the most wonderful thing that can happen after a film. My most gratifying experiences in the cinema or in literature are always difficult works where I have to lean forward and invest a part of myself in the film, but by investing a part of myself in the film, it grows beyond mere consumption. There’s a long afterburn and that was the hope – to make a film that burns for a while in your mind and your soul that you don’t forget by the time you open your car door in the parking lot after seeing the film.
Of course, you can’t play a blank character, so in working with Max, we always had to clearly define where he was, what his options were and why he chose a certain option over another. And we always needed to see a glimpse of the real Willi Herold in the guise of the Captain, so we would alternate those moments because you can’t play [the real person and the imposter] at the same time, but you can alternate those things, so we would weave in and out of who he was and who he was pretending to be, hopefully allowing the audience to see that there’s a decision-making process going on. Fear is on his side and certainly desire, but beyond the situational reality, to label him in clinical terms a psychopath or a sociopath, it really would’ve gotten in the way of the goal of the film. That would’ve given you a mousehole to distance yourself from this character by saying, “Well, I’m not a psychopath [so I can’t relate], I’m not that guy.” But since he could be anybody, it hopefully forces the audience to ask themselves what would I have done?
It’s interesting to hear you talk about leaning in because the visual rhythm of the film in terms of when there’s movement and when there’s stillness is quite interesting – it’s at odds with many films there’s a certain stasis that accompanies the black-and-white imagery. Was that part of creating that conversation?
This film has a will to entertain and the reason for that is not because I want to make massacres entertaining, but because I want the audience to stay with the film, so my definition of entertainment is to involve the audience in the film to the degree that they’ll go along with it. That was very important. But at the same time, the stillness then occurs when we cut to the field in color, which it throws you out of the film intentionally because at that point, it was important to me that you’re not too involved anymore. On a narrative level, you [would] have a moment to breathe and step back, maybe by realizing that this is a true story, so you’d also watch the rest of the film in a different way.
A lot of my peers asked, “Why would you do that?” saying you have to take that out because it throws us out of the movie. But I said, that’s exactly my point. It’s Brechtian and that’s the reason Brecht didn’t have a Hollywood career because it goes against everything the classical American cinema stands for. But of course, we’re doing the same thing all throughout the film. We’re confronting you with something and then we’re giving you a moment to contemplate. In terms of the rhythm, it’s expansion and contraction. The tableaus vivant for example are not part of the narrative. You could take them out and the movie would work just the same. But it’s there just to communicate a state of mind, so we were very conscious of where we wanted to position the audience in the film emotionally and that’s what dictated all of our choices. Everything was always about okay, where do we want the audience to be? Do we want them close to him? Do we want them far away? Do we want them involved? Do we want to surprise them? Do we want to lull them?
One of my favorite scenes in the film involves a phone call that you shoot from two offices just across from each other – obviously, you can’t film in both physically at the same time, but would you run that scene as a fluid conversation since you can see through the windows how the callers are reacting to each other?
It’s really important that you rehearse and it’s really difficult to do that kind of scene because the phones were not working, so we had people relaying things. We were trying as much as we could [to make it feel fluid]. That one was just a challenge in terms of how to shoot it and who hears what and when and who sees what. By and large, I see my job as creating an environment for the actors where they feel safe and can do their best work, so whenever I can, I try to decrease the technical aspects of the shoot to a minimum and make decisions based on what would make the actors happier. If that means that I feed them the lines because this actor is comfortable with my voice or whether they want to hear it with the real voice of the other actor – that is all up to them. They all have different preferences.
Of course, from the design [of that particular set] on and exactly where the windows needed to be, a lot of planning went into that little scene because it was a very important scene. It’s almost an office comedy, like “Who gets the corner office?” These guys use euphemisms to talk about the fate of a hundred people and they never use the word “murder” or “killing.” It’s all about competence and responsibility, which of course is a poor move by the national socialists. They always had overlapping responsibilities so people would be motivated to go beyond the mere duty of their job.
The first part in the car was shot without permission because you can’t drive there [in general], and certainly not with weapons, so we just shot that, and the second part where they’re in the [public] square, we had a permit for that, but only half of the people in the square were actors and my actors that were coming in didn’t know who were actors and who were real, so they treated everybody the same way. It was an attempt to create some continuity [between the past the present]. I got the idea when I was reading a lot about IS Groups appearing in North African villages saying, “We have the weapons and we have the will to do violence. We’re judge and jury and if you don’t adhere to our rules, we will chop off your hands or your head.” We’ve gone through that [in Germany], which I think is why our immigration policies are different from other places. A lot of people making the policies have gone through it as kids, so they understand what it means to be faced with a war and it sounds like it’s very far, but all that is happening now, so this was just an attempt to say, “Hey, look, what if it wasn’t in Africa?”