An Interview With the Director of the Controversial New Film ‘The Captain’
Robert Schwentke has directed films such as “The Time Traveler’s Wife” and “Insurgent.” His new film, “The Captain,” which he wrote and directed, is based on the true story of a German private in the last weeks of World War II who found a Nazi captain’s uniform, put it on, fooled people into believing that he was a Nazi officer, and committed atrocities against German deserters.
Below is an interview that I conducted with the director about his new film.
Alan Zeitlin: Many films about World War II and the Holocaust are from the perspective of the victims. Why did you want to make a film from the view of the perpetrator?
Robert Schwentke: Because it confronts the audience with a different set of questions. If they can’t identify with a person, or don’t feel themselves represented by a person with a proper moral perspective, I think they experience the film differently. They are challenged to make more decisions for themselves about what is happening than they would if they were told [what to think] by the film itself.
AZ: You were born in Germany, 23 years after the end of World War II and the Holocaust. Do you feel any collective guilt about how it could have happened in your country?
RS: Absolutely. That’s the reason why I made the film. You know, the goal of the government was to raise a generation of pacifists, and they succeeded in that. We weren’t allowed to engage in offensive warfare on the basis of our law. We saw every frame of concentration camp footage by the time we were 10. That’s what we grew up with. I’ve been researching this film for 12 years. You have to ask yourself how could this happen. I still have no answer, other than we have in us the awful capacity to hurt one another, to do injustice and be cruel, and if you’re not aware of that, that’s when the trouble really starts. My hope is that this film is in a weird way a prophylactic.
AZ: Were you surprised when you heard about this story, and that this man would lie, saying he had direct authority from Hitler?
RS: I think the whole thing was insane and crazy. I still can’t believe that he got away with it the way he did.
AZ: Do you think most people, if given the chance, would abuse their power?
RS: I can’t speak generally. This is such a specific case. People can hide behind a uniform. People can be something they’re not. And others can respond to it in a way that will cover [for] them.
AZ: You’ve said that the film has a special relevance to what’s going on today. What specifically did you mean?
RS: We’re faced with a new generation of strong men … barbarians who pay lip service to democratic form, but who don’t adhere to democratic norms. There’s no form without a norm. That’s how they subvert it. I feel there is a certain amount of complicity with this. People just get their pork and their bacon. They go along with things they may or may not completely agree with, but … [they] benefit from. This idea of injustice, collusion by people who benefit from the injustice, is always relevant. I’m surprised at the resurgence of the tyranny of religion.
AZ: Were you surprised to see neo-Nazis march in America?
RS: I was. But the extreme rhetoric all over the world paves the field for certain actions. The people who spew the rhetoric are absolutely 100 percent culpable.
AZ: Were you surprised that when you filmed the “Captain” in uniform, real life Germans saluted him.
RS: No. Not in the German East, sadly. … Hate is an emotion that is easier to tap into than reason.
AZ: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
RS: To get it financed. There’s a reason why this sort of movie has not been made in Germany before. I think it breaks certain taboos, such as being from the perspective of the perpetrators. There was a lot of opposition to it. There were a lot of people who made it their mission to try to bury the film. It was very controversial.
AZ: Some in the media compare President Trump to a Nazi. Many call this a disgusting demonization, while others say that it should not be a surprise. What do you say?
RS: I don’t think you can call someone a Nazi. I think that’s sort of a misunderstanding. Fascism is a totalitarian system that attempts to control every aspect of its citizenry. I don’t see that. What people don’t get is that democracy is not a right, it’s a privilege. All over the world anti-democratic forces are linking arms in an effort to create a political network that will weaken democratic forces in the world.
AZ: You had cancer when you were 26. What helped you get through it?
RS: You have an innate will to live and survive as a human being. That’s why we are still here. What got me through, I think, was humor. It’s a defense mechanism, but it’s also a way to poke away at the absurdity of life and death and all the things in between.