Audacity is the keynote of Robert Schwentke’s “The Captain,” in terms of both the actions of its antiheroic protagonist and the fact that Schwentke has chosen to tell this story at all, given the thoroughly conventional nature of the movies he made in Hollywood. The writer-director arguably goes too far in straining to provoke, especially in footage accompanying the final credits, but overall the bracing quality of the film is remarkable and compelling, even though it shares with “The Death of Stalin” a tonal problem in trying to treat horrific events with a sharp satirical blade. Not everyone can do the job with the facility Kubrick managed in “Dr. Strangelove.”

Set on Germany’s collapsing western front in the last weeks of World War II in April, 1945, the film begins with Willi Herold (Max Hubacher), a young private gone AWOL, being pursued through the woods by true-believer Nazi comrades. Barely escaping, he links up with an emaciated deserter even worse off than he is, but the other man is quickly killed as they try to steal eggs from a henhouse. Willi is on his own.

But luck is again on his side. He finds an abandoned car with a Luftwaffe captain’s uniform inside, and tries it on. He tries aping a few military commands, only to find that another wandering infantryman, Freytag (Milan Peschel), who claims only to have become separated from his unit, asks to serve as his attendant. Though initially reluctant, Herold accommodates himself to the situation, and invents a mission—he has been sent by the Führer himself to investigate the situation behind the lines, with full authority to deal with any problem he might find. As it turns out, there is only one small defect in his impersonation: the trousers are too long, something the loyal Freytag will eventually take care of.

After a stop at an inn, where Herold gets a meal by promising everyone that he will ensure they get reparations for everything soldiers have requisitioned, as well as dealing summarily with a man accused of looting (his first kill, after which murder becomes ever easier), he recruits an impromptu squad of deserters who have taken over a farmhouse and brutalized the owners, among them the devious, brutal Kipinski (Frederick Lau). Herold then bluffs his way into an internment camp for deserters, despite the fact that Schneider (Wilhelm Koch), the leader of the squad that tried to capture him earlier, has a vague recollection of having met him before.

It is at the camp that Herold, exulting in his new-found power, turns into a sadist. Learning from the obsequious commandant Schütte (Bernd Hölscher) that rule-minded Department of Justice officer Hansen (Waldemar Kobus) is preventing the summary execution of the prisoners who are overrunning the barracks, he overrides his authority and, with Kipinski taking the lead, orders the men killed and buried in mass graves they dig themselves. Freytag is taken aback by the cruelty, but is forced by Herold to join in the enterprise. And Willi’s bloodlust continues: he not only devises ways of turning prisoners against one another, but continues the violence in a nearby town after the camp is destroyed by Allied bombing; he even turns on his own. And the decision of a military court after his arrest brings complicity rather than justice.

“The Captain” deliberately tells us nothing of Herold’s past; he’s presented as a fresh-faced blank slate transformed by the uniform he has stumbled upon, turning him into a monster. The uniform is also what compels others, bound by the Prussian tradition of subservience to authority, to defer to him, becoming complicit in his crimes. (There is one officer who objects to the mass execution of the prisoners, but he’s an isolated figure.) The tale is thus intended as a microcosm of how the German people submitted to Hitler and carried out his orders, however grotesque: doing so was part of the national character. Schwentke pushes the idea into the present day in a postscript showing Hubacher and his fellow actors, dressed in their Nazi garb, accosting present-day Germans in the street and ordering them about.

That awkward coda isn’t, however, a fatal wound to a film that is otherwise quite a successful departure for Schwentke, who wisely chose to have his excellent cinematographer Florian Ballhaus shoot it in black-and-white. He was also lucky in his choice of newcomer Hubacher, who captures both young Willi’s naïveté in the early going and his ruthlessness in the later stages; he brings almost a note of childish but brazen role-playing to the character, commingled however with more than a little inner nastiness. The clownish Hölscher is the strongest in the supporting cast; Peschel overdoes the sad-sack bit somewhat, as does Lau the snarling villain routine. Overall, though, the secondary parts are ably filled.

It must be admitted that “The Captain” is not an easy film to watch, its view of human nature leaving little room for hope. But at a time when most films about World War II Germany tend to focus on heroic resistance fighters, or people anxious to punish the perpetrators after the fact, encountering one that effectively reaffirms the notion of collective guilt provides a trenchant alternative.