By Reyshimar Arguelles
Historical films are a product of the times in which they were made. For instance, Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven was created at the height of the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Spike Jones’s BlacKkKlansman, on the other hand, was a response to the Trump administration’s latent racism. And of course, there is Schindler’s List that preached about ethnic cleansing while Bosnian Muslims were being massacred en masse during the Bosnian War of the early 90s.
As we battle a pandemic and toxic nationalism at the moment, we might as well look towards certain films that perfectly capture present-day insanities. Unfortunately, no such work passes off as totally relevant to the current health crisis.
What we can do is to look at the historical films that were screened even before the pandemic happened. We can look at several noteworthy titles, but one film describes evil in its purest can be infectious.
Robert Schwentke’s Der Hauptmann (English: The Captain) came almost two years before CoViD-19 officially became a pandemic but its potent message about how evil manifests itself in man resonates with the issues we are facing right now.
What is more evil than fascism? Isn’t the ideology itself bent on racist barbarism and anchored on the very concept of evil? What could be more despicable than that?
In Der Hauptmann, we see that the Nazi ideology functions as a carrier of evil. As a matter of fact, evil does not require a carrier in order to demonstrate its influence in man.
Based on bizarre circumstances during the waning days of the Second World War in Europe when Hitler — hiding in his Berlin bunker — encouraged the German people to keep fighting, the film tells the story of Willi Herold, a German paratrooper being hunted down for deserting his unit.
As he flees from the battlefield, Herold chances upon an abandoned vehicle. Inside is a suitcase containing the uniform of a Luftwaffe (airforce) captain. Herold wears the garments and is found by another deserter who mistakens Herold as an actual officer. Not wanting to be caught, Herold maintains this ruse and discovers the many ways he can use his newfound identity to escape persecution and to exercise his own brand of ruthlessness.
From there, we can tell that Herold is not actually fighting for the ideals of national socialism or for the survival of the German nation for that matter. His initial motivation is to escape from both the Allies and from his comrades who are searching villages for cowards who are now reduced to looting and stealing. But now that he has perfected his disguise and formed his own unit made up of stragglers, Herold’s motives take a more ruthless turn as he claims to have been directly ordered by the Führer to monitor the frontlines and have full jurisdiction over the fate of captured deserters.
With his newfound power, Herold transcends the very ideology he is supposed to embody by exacting his own brand of evil, one which is unacceptable even by fascist standards.
There is even one scene in which he orders some captured deserters at a camp he ingeniously took over to dig and get shot in their own graves. One of the officers of the camp discredits the act as “inhumane” and “un-German” as though the atrocities at Auschwitz and Dachau were any tamer.
Herold’s nihilistic adventure took on more sinister dimensions as he terrorizes civilians who are raising the white flag to the Allies. Eventually, the military police arrest Herold and discover his ruse.
Standing before a military court, Herold explains he has done what is necessary to keep the German nation from capitulating. Impressed by his motivations, the court gives Herold a slap in the hand and orders him to return to the frontlines as a regular soldier. He accepts and gives a Nazi salute before escaping the courthouse in a final move of selfishness and cowardice.
Captured by the British, Herold’s atrocities on his own comrades were revealed and he was executed at the age of 21.
Der Hauptmann may not have been shown during these hard times, but we can draw from it the harsh truth of what the lust for power can do to anyone. And just as the Second World War serves as the background for Willi Herold’s bloodlust, it won’t be long until this pandemic gives leverage to murderers and powermongers who think they are doing what they can to protect their citizens.
They cannot hide from the fact that they are merely Death’s puppets.