Robert Schwentke on Der Hauptmann

The fact that the German Wehrmacht and not only the SS committed horrors in World War II, as Robert Schwentke shows in Der Hauptmann, leads to controversy, even in 2018. “When the national myth of the ‘clean Wehrmacht’ fell apart, suddenly a lot of fathers, grandfathers, brothers and sons were guilty.”

Der Hauptmann is the true story of a soldier that, in the last days of the war, finds a German officer’s uniform. In his ‘new rank’, he starts committing all kinds of atrocities. The film is a sociological exploration of sadism in wartime.

It’s not just peer pressure and survival instinct that earn Willi Herold the nickname ‘the executioner of Emsland’; there is a personal, psychological motivation to his behaviour. Plus, as is always the case with historical horrors, a lot of bystanders who prefer to look away.

You have made all sorts of films, mostly in the US. Action, crime, comedy, romance – I’m sure you won’t disagree with me when I say that a film like Der Hauptmann is new territory for Robert Schwentke.
“Haha, no. But I want to add that I consciously try to do something different every time. I admire makers such as Bresson, Dreyer and Tarkovsky. With them, you only need to see one frame to know that it is their film. I have always found it boring to keep making variations on the same theme. In addition, I think that all my previous films have prepared me to be able to make Der Hauptmann. Otherwise, I would not have had the required experience to deal with the tonal changes in the story.”

The film is inspired by true events. However, the film starts to get more comedic the closer it gets to the end. We see the Hauptmann lecture his men while in coat and underpants. They’re driving around in a car with ‘Nazi quick-justice Willi Herold’ painted on the side, while Willi is offering the Nazi salute. Did that really happen?
“For me, the grotesque tone is in the conversations; especially in the crucial conversation between the officers of the labour camp where they go and do their business. A conversation in which they both twist and turn to avoid responsibility of what is going to happen. They want to hide behind rules. It’s very bizarre how they only talk about bureaucracy and not about morality.”

“But to return to your question: those scenes are all true, yes. It’s all in the archive in Oldenburg, where Herold was ultimately convicted and executed.”

  • Still: Der Hauptmann

  • Still: Der Hauptmann

Have you never wanted to make a film about National Socialism before?
“I’ve always had a problem with Der Untergang, about Hitler’s last days in his bunker, because that film suggests that the Second World War was caused by a handful of sick minds with the biggest madman at the top. That is a dangerous lie, almost an excuse. National Socialism was a dynamic system involving many Germans. Hence many Germans carried blame after the war. The point is: everyone can wear an officer’s coat and commit crimes. The grotesque system of fascism and National Socialism is not a matter of 'then'. We have to keep wondering how such systems can return. That is why we must continue to make these films.”

You want to debunk what you call 'the myth of the clean Wehrmacht'. What does that mean?
"The RAND Corporation, a think tank founded in 1946 by the US Air Force, had just invented the Cold War and was looking for a way to re-employ senior German officers for their own gain. The problem was: the Wehrmacht was also guilty of terrible misbehaviour during the war. So, the story was brought into the world that the Wehrmacht had acted by the rules, that all the wrongs had been committed by the SS.”

“In March 1995, that myth was blown up by the Wehrmachtsausstellung in Hamburg. In two exhibitions, photographic evidence was provided that the Wehrmacht had indeed been in the wrong. Suddenly, a lot of fathers and grandfathers, brothers and sons were criminals – men who had been cleared by the national myth for decades. In Germany, people wrestled immensely with this truth. Even in 2016, when we were looking for money for this film, some investors said my film would disgrace the German Wehrmacht.”

According to Schwentke, the biggest blow was psychological. “After the war, the Germans were told for decades that they had not been evil, because they were ideologically not Nazi’s and did not strictly belong to the NSDAP or the SS. But we have known the truth for a long time: most people are born with the ability of being unjust and cruel.”

We have to keep wondering how such systems can return. That is why we must continue to make these films.” – Robert Schwentke

That is exactly what the film shows: most people would probably undergo a transformation if they put on that officer's coat. Even though they will not all commit the same horrors.
“Exactly. Daniel Goldhagen described that complicity in his famous book Hitler's Willing Executioners. But my problem with that book is that it paints a limited picture of anti-Semitism in Germany. The German sociologist Klaus Theweleit also has written great material about the military psyche of German men.”

According to Schwentke, the story of Der Hauptmann is not even the most horrible thing he encountered during his search. “With this story, I could limit the violence to a few scenes. Otherwise it would become tasteless, objectionable exploitation. Der Hauptmann is not a classic tragedy in which the perpetrator slowly perishes – that would make it too much like entertainment, a thought-out story, and that too would be morally wrong. This is mainly a story about a lot of people who looked away at crucial moments.”

Photo in header: Photo: Der Hauptmann | Interview: Ronald Rovers