The film is based on a true story; the titular Captain is Willi Herold, a young German Landser who deserted then adopted the role of a Luftwaffe Captain and carried out some pretty horrendous crimes in the last months of WW2.
The film opens up with a young man, Willi Herold, in scraps of uniform being pursued by German Soldiers as a deserter who are intent on killing him. After hiding in a wood and making his escape he stumbles upon a abandoned staff car, whilst rifling through the car looking for food and warm clothing he finds the full uniform of a Luftwaffe Captain. Being better than the rags he is in he gets changed and smartens up his appearance. Shortly after doing this another soldier/ straggler approaches him and ask for permission to be under the Captain’s command.
At this point Herold realises if he is dressed as a Captain and is being taken as an Officer as in this situation, he has to act out the role lest he is rumbled. He needs to quickly adopt the manner and authority that befits his new persona. So, he takes on the straggler as his driver. However, being an officer behind the lines without any papers means that questions are asked as to his purpose, Herold bluffs his way through this, basically inventing a story that he is on a special mission from Hitler himself to investigate the state of morale in the rear. This is a confidence trick with his survival being staked on it.
With the rear areas being infiltrated by looting deserters, violent and rapacious to the point of brigandage (just like Herold Was himself at the start of the film) he finds he has to adopt the brutal, violent manner that is expected of a German Officer at this stage of the war, the situation forcing Herold to dispense summary justice to maintain his fake persona. This leads him ultimately, and to not give too much of the remainder of the film away, to a prison camp for German soldiers run by the SS where he instigates and perpetrates the mass murders of fellow Germans by the rabble of men he has collected around himself.
The film is wonderfully shot with a very subdued colour palette, the landscapes look rather bleak and minimal lending a post- apocalyptic feel to the whole proceedings. The acting is good, Willi Herold being played by a young Swiss actor Max Hubacher, with a cast of grizzled looking soldiers being contrasted with Herold’s / Hubacher’s fresh faced good looks.
Parts of the film are incredibly dark, not just in terms of what they portray which, whilst violent, aren’t particularly graphic but also in the obvious disintegration of the psyche of Herold as he turns from the oppressed to the oppressor carrying out the very acts that he started the film fleeing from. It is never made clear whether this is due to a latent psychopathy within him of an insane end that keeping up his charade drives him to. This ambiguity is a good thing as it forces the view to consider both positions themselves. It would be too easy to explain the action of Herold away as that of a mad man but what about everybody else involved? With the exception of his driver who he forces to participate against his will in the killings. In this way you could extrapolate question to the whole phenomena of the Holocaust and other crimes of the Nazi regime, the film being a slice of or microcosm of the larger events. Taking the lead from Browning’s excellent book Ordinary Men one could turn to social psychology for an explanation and look at the experiments of Milgram and Zimbardo for how behaviour is governed by the role adopted and submission to authority.
I think one of the best things I can say of the film is that it evokes the feeling of the 1985 Russian film Come and See but not in a derivative way (Come and See is, I think, one of the best and most important films about WW2 and you should really watch it if you haven’t already). The normalisation of violence and the wanton nihilistic violence that often accompanies war but was especially prevalent within the Third Reich is very well realised, the almost surrealist scenes that are shown whilst the credits roll raises more questions than it answers.
The real-life Willi Herold was only 20 when he committed his crimes. After the war he and his accomplices were tried and executed 6, including Herold were executed as war criminals. There is a short Wikipedia page on him here .