A Nazi deserter poses as an officer in a compelling drama that captures the ugliest qualities of mankind
Civilisation is a fragile thing at the best of times. But for soldiers staggering out of the mouth of hell at the messy, uncertain end of war, it is barely a consideration. Robert Schwentkes superb second world war drama, set in Germany at the grubby, frayed edges of combat, captures the moment when fear and chaos bite and the ordered military existence crumbles into savagery and base urges.
Behind the frontline, deserters are rife, stealing to survive and killing out of habit. When we first encounter lowly private Willi Herold (Max Hubacher), he seems barely human. Filth-encrusted, dripping with snot and fear, he is hunted like an animal by Nazi officers rounding up deserters for court martial. But fate smiles on him when he stumbles upon an abandoned jeep, and in it a pristine officers uniform. He puts it on, and immediately his bearing changes.
If clothes maketh the man, in this case they maketh a monster. Opportunist deserters attach themselves to Herold to form a ragtag unit. And he invents a mission to report on conditions, on the authority of the Fhrer himself. Of Herolds soldiers, Freytag (Milan Peschel) watches in horror, tortured by the cruelty he witnesses. And thuggish Kipinski (Frederick Lau, excellent) is wise to Herolds deception but plays along in order to indulge his taste for brutality.
The stark beauty of Florian Ballhauss black-and-white cinematography and painterly framing cant conceal the ugliness that unfolds as the death toll mounts and Herold starts to believe his own grotesque creation. One stunning shot gives a Gods-eye view of man at his lowest: a brawling mass, drunk, bleeding and blindly lashing out. The score, a scrapyard accident of metallic scrapes and thuds, is equally brilliant.