Feature Documentary Reviews

The Captain’s Heart (2022) – 4.5 stars

Director: Simon Bang

Writer: Simon Bang

Running time: 1hr 34mins

Continuing a running theme of recent IFL films, The Captain’s Heart is a film harking back to a world disappearing from view. Over the course of its 94 minutes, it explores the 20th century through the lens of one family’s sepia-tinged memories – focusing on the exploits of one lone figure in particular.

Visual artist Simon Bang’s warts-and-all portrait of his grandfather, Knud Goth, paints a man who frankly seems hard to love from the outside – but also inspires fearsome loyalty from his surviving relatives. The film’s narrative is pieced together from fragments of his personal archive, which is something of a historical treasure trove, but as we have seen from other recent efforts, this is far from presenting an open goal.

Bang’s achievements are not to be underestimated here; he has taken some remarkable raw materials and utilised his imagination and skills as an artist to bring them to life – to weave them together into a coherent, living story. Bang takes half-completed sketches from his grandfather, scraps of old maps and photographs, and embellishes upon them with his own animations – with some truly breath-taking results. From this, he conjures up heartfelt family encounters, harbours devastated by bombing campaigns, and ships hurdled about by monstrous waves from the flat, static imagery available to him. As a side note, he might have left him a little too much to do in the editing process – causing him to take his eye off the basics for a second, leaving a strange accidental echo on several of the talking-head segments – but considering the size and spectacle of what is unfolding these technical notes also slipped my mind by the end of the film!

Goth was born in 1893, in Denmark. Having endured a hard childhood, after his father lost the family’s money on bad investments, Goth signed on to work on a ship – and scarcely looked back. Over the next six decades, his career as a seaman would see him navigate every corner of the globe, and climb the social ladder. For all the romance of answering the call of the sea, or the desire to improve his family’s station in society, however, the mounting pile of evidence Bang presents suggests it was neither which held him so tightly to the profession.

From the beginnings where he had so little control, the opportunity to be the unquestioned governor of an enclosed space atop the waves seems to have been intoxicating – even addictive – to him. Luck and judgement seem to have fuelled a belief that somehow, while he was at sea, he was the invincible master of his own destiny. One incident referred to in notes from the man himself recalls a great storm which threatened to run his ship aground. While the crew tried to convene to discuss what they should do to avert disaster, he simply organised a ‘service’ and suggested God would see to the rest for them. Incidents like this, where his ship survived by chance, were seemingly taken as indicative that his work-ethic meant his success was somehow assured by a higher power – and at times, that made him insufferable.

Describing one occasion when they attempted to flee in a lifeboat, his two daughters Ida and Ulla (the director’s mother) openly talk about Goth as a ‘dictator’ on his ship. He demanded unquestionable faith in his abilities. This extended beyond micro-managing the ship, right down to the cleaning schedule of its silverware, to manifesting in far more unsettling behaviours. One example of this saw him take his son, Kay, by the ankles and dangle him over the side of the ship. The ‘joke’ was lost on Kay, screaming above the open sea below. When chastised into stopping by his long-suffering wife Anna, Captain Goth seemed “insulted” at the very suggestion he could have slipped and resulted in harm coming to the boy.

Goth becomes an even less sympathetic figure a few years later. The outbreak of the Second World War sees his tyrannical rule challenged by another dictator – and under German occupation, Captain Goth sails as a “neutral” party. His operations are allowed to continue as long as he ferries metals needed for the war effort to Germany, while bringing coal back to Denmark. While it is by no means an easy position to have been in, however, he becomes aware that these actions are actually strengthening Germany’s war-effort – and others are suggesting that his “neutrality” is actually closer to collaboration.

Among them is his son Kay, who Bang tells us “flirts with communism” and joins the anti-occupation terror group Red October. Throughout the accounts of the war, we are occasionally fed scraps of information about these activities, which include Kay hiding hand-grenades under his mother’s plants, having made sure to tell her to “never water them”, and taking “holiday pills” – amphetamines which helped him cope with facing death on a regular basis.

While accounts of the Captain’s own struggles continue to dominate the story – including the wrecking of his ship in a mined harbour toward the end of the war – it’s hard not to feel like we’re focusing on the wrong Goth here. Indeed, even in the scenario where Bang maintained his focus on his grandfather over his uncle, there was definitely more room for him to explore the strained relationship of Knud and Kay – who we are told was left an addict after the war – even if that is an uncomfortable topic for surviving family.

The two are more or less estranged, while it is said that Kay’s addiction is seen as an embarrassment. Considering the origins of that ‘embarrassment’, however, there might have been an effort to help people understand it. After all, there is plenty devoted to helping us understand why Knud is the way he is. At the same time, one letter in particular is approached a little too flatly, when supposedly mitigating his role in the war.

A Jewish refugee once hid on Knud’s boat, and writes to him years later, thanking him for being so calm and collected, while helping disguise his whereabouts. It is a noble act – and one which saved that man’s life. But it is also one which occurs in an individualised bubble. Knud only retained control of that boat in the first place by agreeing to prolong a war that sent many more people like the refugee to concentration camps.

I want to be clear when I say I do not think any of these choices were easy for Knud to make – and nobody knows how they would react in those scenarios. But in a project in which Bang finds so much of himself in his grandfather, as most people tend to when they look back on their own relatives’ lives, it seems he is a little too quick to move on here. Looking at Souvenir Souvenir – another historical animation about the actions of a grandfather at war – by Bastien Dubois, The Captain’s Heart might have dared to be a bit more outspoken in its criticism of its subject, even if it reached the same conclusions.

In spite of this, however, Bang does a good job of balancing sentimentality with a desire to push beneath his grandfather’s façade of being an unstoppable force of nature – and show a little of the flawed and weak man beneath. In particular, the closing segment where, finally forced back to land by a changing world, the former Captain Goth finds himself alone. While none of the letters Bang has seem to suggest Knud regrets the years of being away from his devoted Anna – whose letters regularly plead with him to contact her from wherever he is – his animated ghost cuts a forlorn figure in his deserted house. It is in those moments, like Souvenir Souvenir, that we understand Knud as a human being, and finally find something beneath his imperious, domineering myth that we can relate to.

For all the incredible stories of bravery and sheer luck on the high seas, or the moments of desperation and hardship from the war, The Captain’s Heart is at its best in those fleeting moments where its characters catch sight of themselves, and wonder for a split second about those precious human interactions they may have sacrificed along the way. Perhaps its most important lesson does not relate to the distant moments of history it traverses, then, but rather to the relationships we foster in the modern day. In lives which we have so little control over, we can undermine or trample the feelings of others, as we strive to prove we’re right, we’re in charge of some tiny aspect of our reality. The Captain’s Heart’s might help more of us to think twice on that front, before reflexively dismissing the thoughts or needs of a loved one again – and that is something to be treasured.

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