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In the late nineteenth century, as German shoemaker Wilhelm Voight is released from prison after serving fifteen years for various minor infractions, he learns that he can no longer have his passport. That night, Wilhelm runs into his old friend, Kelle Kallenberg, a petty thief who tells him that if he has not been in the army, he cannot be respectable, and advises him to get a job with a certain shoemaker. The shoemaker cannot help Wilhelm and suggests that he try working in a large factory in which the lack of a passport may not be important, but the factory personnel manager also turns Wilhelm down. The disheartened shoemaker realizes that he cannot get a passport without a job and he cannot get a job without a passport. When a passport office worker turns him away, Wilhelm notices a stack of passports and decides to have Kelle help him to steal one late that night. During the robbery, the police arrive and both men are arrested. In prison once more, Wilhelm is given a military handbook by a guard and told to memorize it to better himself. In 1912, Wilhelm is again released and goes to the apartment of his sister Marie, who, with her husband, Friedrich Hoprecht, welcomes him. Because of his now extensive knowledge of military rules and traditions, Wilhelm surmises immediately that Friedrich is an infantry sergeant, a fact that impresses Friedrich, who suggests that Wilhelm register with the local police to get a work permit. Instead, Wilhelm is notified that he is being expelled from the town. Wilhelm and Friedrich argue over the role of strict discipline in society and when Wilhelm proffers that Germany consists only of soldiers, whether in or out of uniform, Friedrich accuses him of being an anarchist. Wilhelm sadly leaves and goes to a costume shop, where he buys a captain's uniform, telling the shopkeeper that it is for a masquerade. He then takes the train to Berlin and changes into his uniform in the station washroom. Upon leaving the washroom, he encounters two train attendants who are frightened by the authority with which he tells them to discipline themselves. On the street, every soldier and petty official salutes him. When he encounters a group of soldiers, he orders them to go with him to the train station and travel to the nearby town of Koepenick. Although the soldiers have no idea why they are going with Wilhelm, they simply obey his orders, because he appears to be an officer. A short time later, the mayor of Koepenick, Mr. Obermueller, dictates a letter asking his superiors for more soliders. Meanwhile, at the town's garrison, Wilhelm orders the soldiers to man the garrison and asks Kilian, the city hall guard, to be taken to the mayor. Upon meeting the mayor, Wilhelm says that he is under the Kaiser's orders to arrest him and take him to Berlin. Wilhelm orders the staff to issue him a new passport, but soon learns that the town is too small to have its own passport office. After telling the town treasurer, Rosenkrantz, to hand over all of the cash in the treasury, a melancholy Wilhelm goes to a café. He then gives his soldiers money for the train, plus money for beer and tells them to return to the train in thirty minutes. He takes the train out of town as Kilian delivers Obermueller and Rosenkrantz to the Berlin garrison. Even though there are no written orders, the prisoners are accepted because Kilian insists. Arriving back in Berlin, Wilhelm changes back into his civilian clothes and returns to his former, lowly self. Obermueller and Rosenkrantz are released when the police commissioner realizes that a hoax has been played. Soon, wanted posters offering a reward of 10,000 marks for information leading to the arrest of "the Captain of Koepenick" are seen by the amused citizens of Berlin. Knowing that the police will never find him, Wilhelm returns to the passport office and offers a bargain: if he gets a passport, he will deliver the Captain of Koepenick. He then shows the passport official, by producing money from the Koepenick treasury and donning the uniform, that he is indeed the captain. The passport official and the police commissioner are delighted with Wilhelm, who explains that it only took a uniform to accomplish what he did and he did it for the passport, not the money. Wilhelm is given a life sentence for his hoax, but the Kaiser commutes it and instead demands that Wilhelm be given a passport to leave Germany immediately and not further disgrace the country. Finally, Wilhelm happily crosses the border.