2018, NR, 118 min. Directed by Robert Schwentke. Starring Max Hubacher, Milan Peschel, Frederick Lau, Bernd Hölscher, Waldemar Kobus, Alexander Fehling, Britta Hammelstein, Sascha Alexander Gersak, Samuel Finzi, Wolfram Koch.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Aug. 10, 2018
The apparel oft proclaims the man – an aphorism often misquoted as clothes make the man. In this harrowing true story, the clothes make the monster. The inspiration is Willi Herold, known after his war crimes trial as the Executioner of Emsland. In April 1945, he was just another soldier in the retreating Wehrmacht, fleeing to Germany with the Allied forces at their back. He found the uniform of a Luftwaffe captain, started wearing it, and everyone automatically assumed he was a ranking officer. Most people would have used this as a way to flee even faster, but Herold gathered some troops, took over a prison camp containing German military deserters, and started killing them, and then several farmers – leading to him being possibly the only soldier in World War II to face execution by both the Reich and the British Army.
This Herold (Hubacher) is a baby-faced soldier, first seen sprinting through the battle-torn forests of Germany – fleeing not the Allies, but a squad ordered to pick off deserters. His luck changes when he finds a car with a Luftwaffe captain's uniform in it: As soon as he puts it on, everyone presumes he must be an actual captain, and he begins to play the role with dark efficiency. After all, better everyone else than him, he concludes, and ordering the slaughter of unlucky prisoners is the perfect disguise.
The only one who sees through his deception is the dissolute and sadistic Kipinski (Lau), who drolly debunks der hauptmann's fake mission with a single pointed comment: "The situation is always what you make of it."
It's a dramatic shift in tone and direction for director Robert Schwentke. After a couple of well-received films in his native Germany, he got swept up by Hollywood (directing The Time Traveler's Wife and Red) before being spat out (the ill-fated and incomplete Divergent series). Instead, this is a grisly crime drama, pulled back from being stomach-churning only through Florian Ballhaus' stark, handheld, black and white cinematography (one particular scene of mass slaughter would be almost unbearable in full color).
The end of the war has been a rich vein for German filmmakers, not least because it allows them to examine the Reich without even a hint of glorifying it. Schwentke's work fits neatly among the best of the canon, depicting the once-mighty Wehrmacht as a crumpled shadow of its former self, with the last remaining loyalists grasping the rod of fascism to the very end, and using it to beat the last remaining victims – their fellow troops.
But Schwentke isn't simply talking about the sins of Nazism. There's an immediate and visceral resonance to the idea that a uniform – the right uniform – is a license to inhumanity. Herold quickly realizes that bureaucracy will soon catch up to him, and depends on his wits and the complicity of malevolent jobsworths like prison guard Schütte (Hölscher, playing him as half Sergeant Schultz, half John Wayne Gacy) who relish the brutality of the situation, to survive. Hubacher switches between self-assurance and sweaty fear, and so Herold's willingness to sacrifice prisoners who weren't lucky enough to find some abandoned luggage is truly chilling.
Does the man make the uniform, or does the uniform make the man? Schwentke's conclusion is as dark as you may fear.