21 year-old Willi Herold gets executed on the 14th of November 1946 in Wolfenbüttel prison.
21 year-old me laying in bed at 4 am of the 27th of March 2020 watching Der Hauptmann, a Robert Schwentke feature film. I don’t even know what day this is. I lost count during my covid19 quarantine.
So who’s Herold? A German army deserter as it appears from the opening scene. An imposter. A German war criminal as it appears later. So my question is: Is this Herold? Or in other words, can we include the deeds of Herold in the definition of Herold? Moreover, can we sum up the definition of him in the most remarquable actions he has done, just like wikipedia bios do? In reality, no one is making any serious assumptions about Herold’s true identity. Who cares to make such a metaphysical fuss over this anyways? But once we enter the world of the film, we start wondering- similarly to Freitag- Who is this so called Officer Herold? He may be the pour, helpless, hungry and witty deserter we first encountered. We may also add that Herold shows us a hint of decency when he seems concerned about Freitag and gives him an apple. Or was it just mere persuasion? Although it can be, it doesn’t feel that way. Then we discover that Willi is willing to go a bit too far, in order to provide himself with food and shelter. He would kill for it. But isn’t it just survival instinct afterall? He had no choice. And we can see that it’s hard for him to kill, hence he assigns other soldiers to do it. He still is the good fellow that we think he is, right? But then he goes even further, and starts firing at random prisoners and other individuals, just to prove himself worthy of his rank, and who knows for what other reason? It could be sadism. But is Harold a sadist? “How could he be?” said the horrified look on Freitag’s face. “Yes. This is me.” responds Harold gulbing his glass of liquor. But what could be mere sadism to one person, is patriotism, courage and order to another, mainly the officer at the camp and the one at the trial. Even Willi himself seems to truly believe in this motive, towards the end. But wait! Wasn’t he just pretending for all this time? He was a deserter himself,wasn’t he?! Should we say then that Herold is a hypocrite? Or does he become so? It’s strange that we don’t see any scenes in the film where our protagonist pauses to absorb what is happening to him, as atrocious as it may be. We don’t see full reactions, nor moments of introspection. Thus we can’t really tell if Herlord does already have an aptitude towards violence and power abuse or is he internally struggling to partake in those crimes. This character evolution that we see along the film, is it a series of transformations and fast recoveries where Herold changes into someone else? or is it a series of revelations which uncover his true identity ?
Are we an everchanging flow of ideas and actions, or are we a huge rock of layers that needs to be boiled down to its essence?
Most films presents us with characters with one “essence”, no matter how complex and muti-faceted they may be. Otherwise we would be dissapointed and even alienated to discover that deep down they were not what we thought they were, wouldn’t we? Especially if it’s the good-hearted protagonist or the so loyal and faithful deuteragonist are the ones we’re talking of. We would feel betrayed and fooled. We wouldn’t want anylonger to belong to this world (the diegesis, not the real one :)).