Moral Encounters

Set in the final two weeks of World War II, director Robert Schwentke’s The Captain tells the story of Herold, a young German soldier fleeing for his life, who finds a Nazi captain’s uniform in an abandoned vehicle on the roadside. Presented with this opportunity, he begins his impersonation of an officer that soon sees him take on a monstrous persona. Speaking with ASFF, Schwentke addresses the moral plight of his film, which based on true events connects to our present day.

ASFF: One of the striking aspects of the film is the lack of judgement of the character, which creates what could almost be described as a moral vacuum.
I trust that the audience has the ability to come to their own moral judgements. The events are so heinous and some of the characters are so hideous, I didn’t feel the need to point that out on top of their behaving the way they do and making the choices they make. I would say though that my perspective and point of view on the morality, or rather the amorality of the story and the characters comes through in the tone of the film, because we are using ridicule and absurdity.

So the heightened tone is where my judgement comes in, without verbalising it or having a character say it. We are all use to having everything told to us in films these days, that it’s our expectation. I felt for this film it was important that the audience came to their own conclusions because my hope is that there will be a discourse afterwards. If you are invited to think about a film, then the chances are higher that you will involve yourself in a discourse about it. It’s almost like we wanted to make a film that has an after-burn, that stays with you for a little bit, and that you have to invest a piece of yourself in.

 ASFF: The issue of our moral passivity towards the character and events is integral to our experience of the film. The fact that we do question the character’s choices, or rather our own moral passivity as a response exposes something disconcerting within oneself.

RS: I would expand on that because it is not a classical Greek tragedy where in the end fate takes its course. The massacre could have been avoided, very clearly, and occurs because everyone, no matter how peripherally involved they are makes choices, small and large that lead to this outcome. It could have been avoided at so many turns, but too many people wanted it to happen.

So, I think what we as humans are capable of is rationalising and justifying our very worst instincts. No one gets up in the morning and says: “I am going to do something truly evil today.” They all get up, and whatever they do that day, they have reasons for, or so they think or make themselves believe that they have reasons. It’s just something we can do, and we do it all the time.

The moral passivity you were talking about, it’s really a film about what happens when nobody says no. I mean that’s really what it is, and that’s why I think it is relevant today. For that cultural catastrophe to occur, a lot of people have to go along with it, or get out of its way. I think that’s what happens all of the time where people go along with something because they feel they benefit from it, and are willing to overlook other components of the power they are supporting.

Even in American politics today there are a lot of single-issue voters. The one thing that matters to them is abortion for example and that’s what they vote on, and they don’t care about anything else. They are not necessarily racists, they’re not necessarily against the UN and NATO, they might have never even thought about that, but they’re against abortion and that’s what counts for them.

ASFF: The absurdity that you mentioned earlier is almost seductive and in spite of the dark nature of the story, the crisp monochrome image gives the film an aesthetic beauty.
RS: When I was very young, I must have been about five, in our cellar I found woodcut prints by the Belgian artist Frans Maseree. They were woodcuts about the war, hunger, the economic depression and so forth, and as woodcuts go, they were very broad. They weren’t detailed, but they were extremely expressive of the terrors of life, and they spoke to me deeply on an emotional level. For me this movie is very much influenced by Frans Maseree, woodcuts and by the Weimar artists such as Otto Dix and Max Beckmann. I see the same beauty in their work despite the grotesque and the violent … I don’t think that means you are drawn to, or you are celebrating it. I just think you are creating a contrast and in that contrast you draw out the violence even more because it feels more incongruous.

Also distance was very important in how we visualise violence in this film. The violence that is onscreen is very short and sharp, and the violence that is not explicitly shown visually is drawn out, and mostly works by using your own imagination through tone and suggestion, and so forth. Again, I felt I needed to stay back a little bit from everything, and I hope that the style does not aestheticise violence, but that it works as a contrast.

 ASFF: Was it always your intention to shoot it in black and white, and what have been the general attitudes to this choice within the industry? I ask because I recall Tim Burton on the Ed Wood commentary track talking about certain financial consequences that come with the decision to make a black and white film.
It was intended to be black and white, but you are contractually obligated to provide a colour version. This is not just true for us, it is true for Michael Haneke. Nobody uses it, but they do exist, generally speaking. I am not sure about Roma; probably not because that was made differently in terms of its financing. If you work with European funding agencies or television stations you always have to provide a colour version, and you hope that they will never use it.

There were some buyers who said they would buy the film, but they didn’t want to buy the black and white version; streaming entities and such. That was a nonstarter of course for us because it’s not just an aesthetic choice that the film is in black and white, with this film it’s almost a philosophical choice. So if you take that away, then it’s an entirely different entity than what we made.

The Captain is available now on DVD & Digital HD courtesy of Signature Entertainment.

Paul Risker

1. All stills courtesy of Signature Entertainment.