Monday, October 16, 2017

MM Movie Review: The Exception

“The Exception” is a “romantic war drama” from 2016 directed by David Leveaux. Despite its official designation, I would hardly call it any kind of war drama as the war is never really seen and, as for the “romantic” part, I suppose it is though it certainly is not what I would say is typical in that regard. However, that aside, this is going to a positive review. If you are a monarchist, over 18 and do not live in Kansas, I would recommend this film and I am saying that now because, since unlike most movies I talk about, this one is relatively recent and if you want to watch a film which is stolen by a masterful portrayal of the exiled German Kaiser Wilhelm II, read no more and do so now because there will be spoilers. That generally goes with the territory with my reviews but, again, I want to put the warning out there since this was released last year and I ordinarily only review films that have been out for a long time and I assume most have seen already.

The film is based on the novel “The Kaiser’s Last Kiss” by Alan Judd which I have not read and so will not comment on. The main characters of the film are German army captain Stefan Brandt played by Jai Courtney and a house maid name Mieke played by Lily James. However, the film revolves around the exiled German Kaiser Wilhelm II played masterfully by veteran actor Christopher Plummer who totally steals the show. I cannot imagine anyone, monarchist or not, watching this movie and not wanting to see more of Plummer playing the Kaiser than anything else. The most surprising thing is that, quite unintentionally I gather from the commentary, it is actually a very fair and even somewhat sympathetic portrayal. Yeah, imagine that. Christopher Plummer even looks eerily similar to the Kaiser at this stage in his life and I would say gives the most convincing portrayal, in appearance and mannerisms, of the last German emperor since Barry Foster in “Fall of Eagles”. Christopher Plummer and his scenes alone make this a film worth watching, in spite of the things it does get wrong.

Our story begins with Captain Brandt having a nightmare about a traumatic war experience he had in Poland after a tryst with some unknown woman. He is called to HQ and told that the German army has just conquered Poland and that he is to be put in charge of the guard posted at House Doorn, residence of the exiled German Kaiser Wilhelm II. Without specifics we are made aware, from his nightmare and the words of his superior, that Brandt evidently witnessed an atrocity in Poland, took some sort of action and got into some trouble over it as his posting, while away from the front, is considered better than he deserves. Brandt goes to Doorn and meets up with the local SS agent for the area, a predictably contemptible character, and is brought before the former German Kaiser after being briefed on the very strict rules that are in place concerning the former monarch. We also meet the Kaiser, who is following the progress of the German army during the westward blitzkrieg and Mieke, a new girl working at the house, who wins over the exiled king with her sweet simplicity.

Mieke later comes to invite Captain Brandt to have dinner with the Kaiser and, despite having set him up as being not such a bad guy, he sort of attempts to rape her and not “attempt” in that he gets fresh and she fends him off but rather that he is unable to complete the act. It is an odd and difficult scene, all the more so because Mieke makes no effort at all to resist and does not seem terribly bothered by it at all. She says nothing about it and at dinner, despite his briefing on what not to talk about, as the Kaiser’s wife, Princess Hermine, asks about the captain’s background, the difficulties of his family stemming from World War I comes up which causes the Kaiser to have an emotional outburst, pained that he is held to blame for everyone’s misfortunes. Brandt said nothing of the sort, though we see from a comment later that he does seem to blame the Kaiser for the war, but it reveals how much the Kaiser himself feels responsible despite recounting how he tried to stop the catastrophe (which is historically accurate) and wondering where were the men like Ludendorff, Bethmann-Hollweg and Tirpitz when the world turned against him. It was one of the most powerful scenes in the film, brilliantly done by Plummer who, in sad frustration, remarks that these men, “lost me the war. They lost me my country”.

After dinner, Brandt returns to his quarters to find Mieke there and she basically turns the tables on him, which he doesn’t seem to mind and the two have a conjugal encounter, something forbidden by the rules of the house. Later, the local SS agent tells Brandt that they have been picking up radio transmissions and believe a British spy is operating in the area and may be targeting the Kaiser. In a somewhat funny scene, when Brandt goes to inform the Kaiser about this, Princess Hermine beats him to it, already aware of this news through some sources of her own. Whether because of this perceived threat or to be closer to Mieke, with whom Brandt is having a full blown affair, he moves into the main house. The Kaiser is unimpressed by the idea of a British spy possibly targeting him, thinking, sadly but not unreasonably, that an old man with no position of power who chops wood and feeds his ducks all day would not be considered a target worthy of assassination. Still, we are left to wonder what this secret agent is up to but we are very quickly left in no doubt as to who that agent is; it is Mieke. She says nothing about this to Brandt but does reveal to him something just as dangerous; she is not simply a Dutch girl but a Jew. However, Brandt does not care about this, only urging her to keep it a secret for the sake of her own safety.

The tension and suspense of the film is mostly based around Brandt following Mieke, slowly suspecting that she is the agent and the Germans who are using her radio broadcasts to slowly zero-in on her exact location. The Kaiser, for his part, is mostly concerned with his desire for a restoration of the monarchy, pointing out that in such a time of crisis, Germany needs a traditional, Christian monarch to unite the country and serve as a moral leader. His wife does not want him to lose hope that this dream could come true and we are made to believe that she was working very hard for it, doing her best to gain the favor of the Nazi high command (again, something generally accurate). Brandt thinks it is only tormenting the Kaiser to have such hopes, knowing from his own experience that the Nazis would never restore the monarchy, being dominated by men from the lowest levels of society who clawed their way to the top and who are extremely resentful of the traditional aristocracy and princes. This, however, leads to one of the biggest historical inaccuracies of the film which, up to this point, had been doing pretty good in that department.

Word arrives that Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, is coming to Doorn to visit the Kaiser. Princess Hermine hopes that such a high profile visit could mean that Hitler is about to offer the Kaiser his throne back. Needless to say, this visit never happened and would have been quite absurd. The Kaiser was visited, before the war, by Air Marshal Hermann Goering and this is mentioned in the film, the Kaiser being less than impressed with the outlandish Nazi. For Himmler to visit the Kaiser, on the other hand, would have been extremely bizarre to say the least. He was a party official after all and, especially after being visited by Goering, to have someone like Himmler come would have been seen as a slight rather than an honor. Himmler was basically a policeman, had been too young for action in World War I and I can only imagine this was put into the story because of the reputation Himmler has today as possibly the most sinister Nazi of all. People today tend to forget that, at the time, Himmler hard made the list of highest-ranking Nazis whereas Hermann Goering was Hitler’s right-hand man, the second most powerful man in the Reich and Hitler’s chosen successor

When Himmler does arrive, following a thorough search of the house which offends the Kaiser, it is extremely awkward on every level. Not that many will be honest enough to say it but, I think they are somewhat unfair to Himmler, at least up to a point, in his behavior during the visit. He is shown to be ignorant of proper protocol and rather rude which I do not think Himmler would have been. Prince Heinrich of Bavaria was his godfather and Himmler’s own father had been a tutor to the Bavarian Royal Family so I am fairly sure Himmler, despite his politics, would have known how to behave in such a situation. Princess Hermine, who had tried to think the best of the Nazis, has her Christian values offended by catching a glimpse of Himmler’s secretary in his room in her underwear as she, again very awkwardly, gives Himmler an envelop full of cash as a gift. She actually did do this but to Goering who did actually visit and while Himmler did carry on an affair with his secretary, it seems very unlikely that he would have been unable to behave himself for one evening in such a situation. He also offends the Kaiser and his Christian values by talking about the studies underway which he has witnessed to most effectively exterminate the Jews.

This is another point that must be addressed, even though I am sure it will offend someone. First of all, the war was well underway before any talk of exterminating the Jews ever came up even behind closed doors among Nazi leaders. The idea that Himmler would have been openly chatting about such a thing in the Netherlands, in front of the former Kaiser, at the beginning of the war is ridiculous. Secondly, Himmler was not that sort of man. By all accounts I have read, Himmler himself only ever witnessed one execution of Jews and it so revolted him that he had to run outside and be sick. So, again, the idea that he would be telling such lurid stories to such an audience is utterly absurd. The point of this whole meeting in terms of the film is to reveal to the Kaiser and his wife, who were both devout Christians, what sort of people the Nazis were. Later that night, the Kaiser reveals privately that Himmler indeed offered to restore him to his throne in Berlin but that, after waiting and hoping for this day for so long, he cannot bring himself to be associated with so monstrous a regime.

Captain Brandt, however, knows that the Kaiser is being tricked. Himmler, in another scene which would never have happened in real life, informs him prior to his meeting with Wilhelm II that he will inform the Kaiser that Hitler will restore his throne but that this is a ruse intended only to flush remaining German royalists out into the open so that they can be dealt with. Brandt does not keep this secret, being already in the midst of a conflict of loyalties concerning his affair with Mieke. Once Himmler has left, Mieke confronts the Kaiser out in the woods while he is chopping wood (which actually was the Kaiser’s primary pastime during his exile) and reveals herself as the British spy. However, she was not ordered to kill him but rather to pass word to him that the British would offer him a safe haven in England and the restoration of his throne after the Allies win the war. The Kaiser can only marvel at the absurdity of the situation; after twenty years of waiting receiving two offers for restoration in a single night, neither of which he can accept.

The last act of this drama plays out though as Mieke is discovered by the SS and Brandt must decide to serve his country or save the woman he loves. He proves Mieke right as she had previously told him that he was “the exception” among the servants of the Nazi regime rather than the rule. In a move that must surely win over some republicans, at least momentarily, the Kaiser, who had collapsed with heart problems, helps Brandt get Mieke to safety under the guise of taking him to the hospital. At the very end, we see that Brandt was not found out for what he did and that Mieke got away to England, carrying his child. Kaiser Wilhelm II, unfortunately, did not long survive the point at which these fictitious events are to have happened but that is not dwelt upon and that is fine. They did end the film with the old Kaiser being counted among the ranks of the “good guys” which is more than most monarchists would likely expect, particularly concerning the rather thorny issue of the last German Kaiser and his attitude toward the Jews.

On the whole, I thought the movie was very good and well worth watching but, personally, almost solely for the purpose of watching Plummer portray the Kaiser which I thought was the most well done, the most accurate and the most interesting. The rest, I could frankly take or leave. The romance just seemed to happen for no reason other than first-sight physical attraction and seemed to go way too far way too fast. It didn’t make sense to me. Likewise, while there was some real suspense to see what would happen, there was certainly no real mystery as to who the spy was and her being Jewish seemed a bit like unnecessary pandering. Doubtless she would have been in just as much danger for being found out as a British spy as she would be for being Jewish. At this early stage of the war, perhaps even more so. The Himmler visit was ridiculous but I suppose I should not complain given that it made the Kaiser and his household look very good in comparison.

It does contain a little naughty language and a couple glimpses of brief nudity so, again, not for the underage of residents of Kansas but I recommend it simply for the very accurate and sympathetic portrayal of the Kaiser, accidental though it was on the part of the filmmakers. I also thought the portrayal of Princess Hermine by Janet McTeer was excellent and pretty historically accurate as well. They showed the Kaiser as a good man, unjustly maligned, haunted by a terrible past that had been laid at his doorstep and who firmly believed in the righteousness of the Christian monarchist cause. They showed the Princess Hermine, likewise, as a good Christian woman of the Prussian aristocracy who had pinned her hopes for her husband on the Nazi regime and who wanted to believe the best about them until coming face to face with the ugly truth in the person of Himmler. Anyone interested in the Kaiser and particularly his time in exile should certainly give it a viewing. I am glad I did.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent film, thanks for reviewing it. C. Plummer deserves an Oscar.
    Correction, Himmler is talking about euthanasia experiments that were geared towards ridding Germany of unfit Aryan children “This went on before The Final Solution. In fact, the first use of gas chambers was conducted at a non-existent place called “Padernice, ” on October 1940. The victims were mental patients and those from old people’s homes. Some were Jewish, some were not. In the summer of 1939, a secret program to kill German disabled children was created by the Nazis. It was enforced at special “pediatric” facilities in Germany and Austria.
    I wrote more about it in my own review of the film


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