Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The Good German, The Jewish Girl and The Cuddly Kaiser: The Exception

I postponed my watching of “The Exception,” fearing I wouldn’t like it. It looked like another cliché-ridden flick with a storyline that had fallen prey to the usual historical fiction mistakes:  lack of credibility, the impossibility of a happy ending, or the implausibility of such ending if it happened at all.  In the end, my fears proved unfounded. I liked the movie a lot, but for all the wrong reasons. I applauded the deviations from the book, totally bought the romance, adored the Kaiser, and the new ending enthralled me. I’m afraid they made the film for those like me (I leave it up to you to define me) in the sense that it maintains a high-level of romantic suspense while remaining as faithful to true events as possible.

“The Exception” is based on former soldier-diplomat Alan Judd’s novel The Kaiser’s Last Kiss. Published in 2003, the book came out at a time when interest in World War II fiction was dwindling. Back then, I was heavily involved in the writing of my own war tale, so I kept an eye on the American publishing market. Everything indicated the subject was not in vogue, at least not on this side of the Atlantic.

In the last two years, the market has changed, which may account for the novel’s adaptation finally hitting the screen.  In 2017, The New York Times Bestsellers List has included several novels about Europeans’ plight during the conflict (Lilac Girls, The Nightingale, All the Light We Cannot See). The BBC keeps on making shows about Britain during the war; “Home Fires,” “The Halcyon” and “My Mother and Other Strangers.” The film industry follows suit. “Allies” has been Hollywood’s attempt to come up with a Third Millennium “Casablanca.” Since 2016, two films have been made about Churchill and two films about Heydrich’s assassination; “The Zookeeper’s Wife” introduced us to another courageous rescuer of Jews; and this summer we got to experience “Dunkirk.”  “The Exception” fits into its times and fashions.

With “The Exception,” theater producer David Levaux has gone the whole hog into the feminization of this period drama. The main (very odd) couple is gorgeous, they have red-hot sex but are so in love, and Kaiser Wilhelm II is a fuzzy-cuddly teddy bear who lives in a magnificent palace, surrounded by beautiful things and lovely-looking people. When Heinrich Himmler (Eddie Marsan, who is becoming a fine character actor) drops by to visit, he stands out like a porcupine in a swan pond. You can tell he represents all that is ugly and evil in the world.

Changes have been made to the original plot, starting with the names. Martin has become “Stefan Brand,” and Akki is now “Mieke de Jong.” I have yet to understand the reason behind this modification. In the book, Martin is an enthusiastic SS officer, full of pride for his uniform and the power that comes with it. And yet in the middle of babysitting Kaiser Wilhelm in Holland, he falls in love with a Jewish spy. Critics and readers alike doubted the probability of such romance between an SS and a Jew. I shared those doubts, although we have a precedent:  SS Auschwitz guard Franz Wunsch fell in love with Jewish Helena Citronova and saved her life and her sister’s. But as I said, Martin and Akki’s liaison did not ring true to me. Not that early in the war, not in that milieu, so I could see the need to modify the storyline.
Helena and Wunsch

Stefan Brand, the new protagonist, is a Wehrmacht officer and his mission to protect the Kaiser is a punishment. He has run afoul the SS in Poland and only his connections (he is “distantly” related to the Ludendorff Family) have kept him from a court martial. His crime? Beating up an SS officer who was conducting one of those daily massacres of civilians that would characterize German occupation of Poland.

Stefan is asked to guard the Kaiser’s life with his own, but also to watch him. There is a rumor that a British agent is lurking near Huis Doorn (Wilhelm’s country state) who may want to contact the former Emperor of Germany. The Germans fear the Allied wish to use the Kaiser as a propaganda figure. This is a fact. At the start of the German invasion, both Hitler and Churchill sent messages to Wilhelm offering him asylum in their respective countries. The Kaiser refused both offers.

In real life, Churchill’s message was relayed to the former Emperor by the Mayor of Utrecht. In the book/film such errand is placed in the hands of the woman who will catch the eye of both Brand and the Kaiser. Such attraction will turn them into “The Good German” archetype. When Mieke tells her lover, “the Nazis are the rule, but you are the exception,” she is reaffirming the idea that not everybody in the Fatherland was a Nazi, and those who did not carry the Nazi Party card were good Germans.

 I don’t abide by such simplicity. “Good Germans” came in all shapes and sizes. Count von Stauffenberg was Wehrmacht, but he was not a party member. Oskar Schindler was the quintessential Good German and yet he carried his card. Hans Munch, nicknamed “The Good Man of Auschwitz,” was an SS doctor who refused to kill Jews. Heinz Dissel rejected Nazism, joined the Wehrmacht, helped his parent’s hide Jews and eventually married Marianne, a Jewish girl he saved from suicide.  Werner Vetter was a good party member; however, he did get false papers for Jewish Edith Hahn so he could marry her. Throughout the war he managed to keep her (and their child) safe. So, Captain Brand is in good company.
The Nazi Officer's Wife, Edith Hahn and her husband, Werner Vetter.

Nevertheless, at the film’s beginning, Brand may dislike the SS and the Gestapo but he is not about to topple Nazi hierarchy, betray his oath of allegiance to the Fuhrer, and certainly, he is not one of those monarchists who yearn for the Kaiser’s return. Although he comes from a long line of Prussian officers and his mother was a member of the landed gentry, he belongs to that generation (that gave rise to Nazism) that felt betrayed by the Kaiser. As we are to find out, the Kaiser feels betrayed by his subjects.

At his first dinner with His Royal Highness, Brand summarizes his life. His officer father was killed in the Battle of the Somme. During the chaotic postwar period, his refined mother was forced to hire herself as a housecleaner, and eventually died of tuberculosis. This confession provokes one of Wilhelm’s famous mood swings. He explodes in a tirade declining the guilt the world and Germans assign him for causing the war and the following debacle.

The Great War and its consequences are an ongoing peeve in the Kaiser’s mind. After all, he was considered a war criminal and Holland fought hard to resist French pressure to extradite him. Throughout the film, Wilhelm makes half-hearted attempts to eschew responsibilities. He blames the war on his entourage, on Moltke, Ludendorff and others of that ilk. Nobody really believes him, least of all war-orphan Brandt. But being objective, it is hard to assign blames for starting the conflict. Germany was militaristic but not less than Serbia or Russia. And certainly not more enthusiastic to enter war than France was.
British anti-Kaiser propaganda.

Christopher Plummer may be 88 years old but his histrionic power is that of a young man. His prowess is to turn Kaiser Wilhelm into a sympathetic character. He manages to convey a man who is both charming but tactless, perceptive as well as imperious. The real Kaiser was all that and more.

Wilhelm as a young boy

Although the offspring of two lovely people, Wilhelm was an unhappy child: sickly, born with a deformed arm, half-deaf, and an emotional wreck. The insecurities brought by his less than perfect body made him volatile and aggressive. He was Queen Victoria’s favorite grandson (the old queen died in his arms) and through his grandmother, he grew to love the lifestyle and mores of the British aristocracy. He was a modern ruler who fought and eventually fired Bismarck because the chancellor stood on his way when Wilhelm tried to successfully bring social reforms and progress to Germany. But of course, all that vanished compared to the carnage that he provoked in 1914.
Queen Vicky and young Willy

Critics have written odes over Plummer’s flamboyant performance, and odes he deserves, but the cast is top notch too. Australian hunk Jai Courtenay (“Divergent”) may belong to the Tom Hardy school of acting but at least he talks, he doesn’t grunt. He is convincingly brooding and his chemistry with Lily James is flawless.

I’m so glad that despite her blundering acting in that mishmash “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” Lily James successfully continues her campaign to occupy Keira Knightley’s throne as the Period Piece Queen. She’s lovely as brunette Mieke even if her role does place her in that category of  ”Jewish girl surviving in Holland while doing a bit of spying on the side.” She does remind me of similar actresses in that role from Lana Turner in “Betrayed” to Carice van Houten in “The Black Book.” She also does a bit of Mata Hari when, on delivering the Kaiser’s invitation to Brand, barges into the officer’s room getting a quickie and managing to intrigue him further.

There are those who have resented the amount of sex in the film. I’m one to speak out against gratuitous sex scenes, but there is none of those here. We get a lot of bedroom sights with the couple in different stages of undress, but that is because they are clandestine lovers. Secret post-coital trysts are their only chance to talk about what matters. There are two graphic sex scenes. Both actors bare it all and we finally get to see some masculine frontal nudity, but it’s all necessary and tastefully done.

Nonetheless, I felt Mieke to be the least developed character in a story that, despite its action and suspense, is chiefly character-oriented. We know so little of Mieke except that she carries a gun, reads Nietzsche and (as the Kaiser notices) possesses far too delicate hands for a chambermaid.  

At some point, she tells the pastor who heads her underground movement that the Germans killed her husband and father. How? Were they in the doomed Dutch Army? Were they in Rotterdam when the Luftwaffe bombed that city?  Germans didn’t kill Dutch Jews until February 1941. Of course, the killing could have taken place somewhere else. Mieke may not be Dutch. That would explain her working for the British so early in the war. In the book, she tells Martin she “volunteered” for this mission. It means she had to undergo some training prior to her domestic service at Huis Doorn.

The movie has some chronological problems. I hear the novel takes place over a year period, ending sometimes in 1941, right after the invasion of the USSR. However, the film starts after Holland surrenders, and takes place over a couple of weeks making events move too fast for credibility. Such short time for British-trained agents to be posted in the village, and all to deliver a message to the Kaiser?

Does “The Exception” fail on other historical aspects? When I was a little girl, I asked my father, what had the Kaiser done after his abdication.  “He went to Holland to chop wood” was his scornful answer. I thought he was pulling my leg. During the Great War, my grandfather had been a sergeant in the Belgian Army. He had handed down his (well-earned) hatred for Germans to my dad. Eventually, I learned that the exiled Kaiser, who until 1932 enjoyed a splendid health, did indulge in constant wood-cutting that led to massive deforestation in the area around Huis Doorn.

Aside from being a lumberjack, the Emperor planted roses (his rosarium are still to be seen), took long walks, went on archeological digs, wrote articles, entertained lavishly, and kept up with the news, reading the eight leading German papers every day. He cared to know about German politics because real Wilhelm and his movie version shared the same dream, they wanted their throne back.

The film shows us the Kaiser feeding ducks, chopping wood and following war progress. Unlike in real life, where the Kaiser exulted over the Nazi Army’s advances, Plummer’s character seems to find no pleasure in it. “This is not my army,” he mumbles at some point.  The real Kaiser resented Hitler and his crew considering them a bunch of vulgar parvenus. He detested their methods which to him were not different from those of the Bolsheviks.  But the Nazis were a necessary evil. Their aid was vital for Wilhelm’s return to Germany.

In the film, His Majesty over and over displays his contempt for Nazis. He scoffs at Hitler pretending to have invented the swastika; refers to “Fat Goering” as an uncouth oaf, one that the Kaiser’s old regiment would have thrown to the dogs; and when the Empress tells him they’re about to entertain Himmler, Wilhelm’s contemptuous answer is “count the silver.”

There is one doubt the film planted on me. The plot explains the Kaiserine’s fawning over the Nazis not only because she dreams of a Hitler-supported restoration, but also because the German government has granted a generous allowance to the Royal Family. I was under the impression that the Kaiser had left Germany carrying most of his personal fortune and that those funds had enabled him to live in style in the Netherlands. Did Hitler solvent the Kaiser’s magnificent lifestyle?
Huis Doorn, residence of the Kaiser during his exile.

To review the historical aspects of “The Exception” one can’t eschew two real characters that shared the Kaiser’s exile and play important roles in the movie. The first is Princess Hermine, Wilhelm’s second wife. After playing Clementine Churchill and Jaquetta of Luxembourg, Janet McTree adds a new character to her gallery of noble ladies. With darker hair and marvelous facial expressiveness, McTree grants Princess “Hermo” the moral ambiguity, the determination, and the gullibility that characterized the real item.

The Kaiser was overcome with grief when his lifetime companion, Empress Augusta, died shortly after their arrival in Holland. On his first birthday as a widower, the Emperor received a particularly moving greeting from a young boy, Prince George-Wilhelm of Shonaich-Carolath. Touched by the letter, Wilhelm asked the prince to visit him. The boy traveled with his mother, the recently widow Princess Hermine (nee Princess von Reuss).

 The Kaiser was instantly smitten by Hermine’s curvaceous body and dusky exotic looks. Finding her attractive and intelligent, he proposed almost immediately. Their marriage came as a shock to both German monarchists and the Kaiser’s children who never accepted their stepmother.  Being more than thirty years younger than her husband, Hermine was thought to have married for all the wrong reasons. Although she came from a princely family, everyone perceived her as just a social climber bent on being the new Kaiserin.
The Kaiser and Princess Hermine

Hermine was scheming and ambitious indeed, but history tells us she loved her husband (and Wilhelm was a difficult man) and made his ambitions her own. Throughout her marriage, she strived to get his throne back. As she could travel back and forth between Germany and Huis Doorn, she contacted every monarchist association available, and to her eternal shame, toadied to the Nazis brazenly. She even bribed Goering (as she does Himmler on the film).
The loving couple, Wilhelm and his new Kaiserin

When Wilhelm left Germany, he was accompanied by his young aide de campe, Colonel Sigurd von Ilsemann. Although part of a small and new nobility, von Ilsemann was totally devoted to his master, yet he was not blind to the Kaiser’s flaws. Throughout his years of service, he kept a diary that was published shortly after his death in 1952. There, von Ilsemann writes frankly about the difficulties of living with the Kaiser and the schemes of Princess Hermo (the diarist did not like her).

Even the servants resented the new Empress and did their best not to obey her. The scene where Wilhelm, in front of the staff, dismisses Hermo’s desire of firing Mieke (after learning of her “fornication” with Brandt), probably was a constant event in that house. And yet, the movie recreates Hermo’s love for her husband, her naïve illusions of getting him back into power, and her shock at the Nazi’s villainy and cruelty.

Devaux has turned von Ilsemann (played by Ben Daniels) into another “Good German.” He could very well have been Fool to the Kaiser’s Lear, but he ends up being Jiminy Cricket, the voice of conscience in a world without conscience. This becomes evident during the plot’s pivotal twist, Heinrich Himmler’s impromptu visit to Huis Doorn.

Although Goering did visit the Kaiser prior to the outbreak of hostilities, Himmler never came. It matters little, since this historical license provides that catalectic moment all characters seem to long for. Mieke wants to kill the head of the Gestapo; Brand discovers she is a spy who may have been using him; Wilhelm learns the Nazis want him in Berlin, and Princess Hermo begins to plan how she ‘ll make her mean sisters bow to her once her husband is back in power.

Alas, this is all a trap. Only von Ilsemann can see through it. He tries to warn his Kaiserin. He reminds her of the worthy aristocratic people the Nazis have killed, including Chancellor von Schleicher, murdered with his wife during the Long Knives Night. Hermine remains stubbornly unmoved, and yet she’s about to be surprised by these picturesque Nazis whom she thinks she can so easily manipulate.

Reichsfuher Himmler’s arrival is disastrous. The Kaiser makes him wait a long time under a gray sky. Nobody but the head of the local Gestapo answers Himmler’s Nazi salute, and Princess Hermine delivers a clumsy welcoming speech punctuated with remarks about the sad absence of Frau Himmler. Did nobody bother to tell the Empress that the woman in furs next to Himmler was Hedwig Popthast, his secretary-mistress?The Kaiserin learns this fact when she drops by Himmler’s bedroom (carrying her bribe in an envelope) and finds the secretary wearing only a lace garter belt.

 Hermine is about to face further shocks at a dinner party where ugly truths are laid on her napkin. In response to Wilhelm’s diatribe against the Jews, Himmler begins to spread the Third Reich’s plans for those who have no right to exist in such a paradisiacal land. Von Isleman courageously brings up the patriotic Jewish contribution during the Great War, but his words are ignored. The Nazis have no regard for those decorated soldiers, no more that Wilhelm does.

Undaunted, von Ilsemann continues in his efforts to make his master see his guest’s immorality. When Himmler speaks candidly about the extermination of the Untermenchen, the equerry retorts “and their children too.” This provokes a horrific tale, made more horrific because Himmler is unaware that this is not a subject for dinner conversation. He speaks of a doctor that has found a fast method of murdering children: injecting carbolic acid to their heats. “The children love him! “exclaims the elated Reichsfuhrer.

For a second, the audience wonders if the ceiling will cave in, if brimstone and fire will fall upon these corrupt crowd, but nothing happens. Instead we are subject of an impeccable camera work. First, we get a close-up of Hermo who is rolling eyes and swallowing hard, trying to digest what she has just heard, then the camera pans to her husband’s face. Wilhelm has become a marble statue, you can’t even feel him breath. Finally, the camera focus on Mieke’s visage as she silently passes judgement on the present company.

The most appalling detail about Himmler’s anecdote is that, aside from being true, he is talking about Aryan children. In Nazi Germany, euthanasia was applied to the terminally ill, to the elderly and to anybody who displayed deviant behavior. The mercy killing of children was done for the most arbitrary reasons: from severe mental retardation to bedwetting, from manic suicidal tendencies to teenage girls’ despondency.

The following morning, the Empress accuses von Ilsemann of having lead Himmler into that coarse conversation, but we sense she has been shaken from her comfort zone. When von Ilsemann is told that they are returning to Berlin, he’s visible moved but whispers his hopes that the Kaiser’s return to his homeland will restrain Nazi cruelty. But the offer is nothing but a ruse designed to flush out the monarchist elements in Germany. The Nazis consider them enemies of the state as much as Jews are. Over a shot of schnapps, Himmler confesses this truth to Brand who is now in a wider quandary. Should he save Mieke? Should he help the Kaiser and the monarchists? What can he do when his oath to a ruthless regime clashes with his honor as a true German soldier?

Brand needs a mentor/father figure. He doesn’t confide in Himmler, not the Kaiser, but he goes to a man whose honor he recognizes. “What could be more important than the love of one’s country?” is Brand’s question. Von Iselmann’s answer is chillingly poignant:” One must ask, what is my country and does it even still exist?” That is all Brand needs to know. With a bit of help from the Kaiser, he manages to do the right thing while retaining his honor and patriotism.

“The Exception” confronts us with a historical question. Would the Kaiser have been as decent as the film and Plummer portray him?  For that we must go back to history and explore the touchy subject of his anti-Semitism and his relationship with the fair sex.

Much has been written about the Kaiser’s alleged bisexuality. None of it is very convincing. He did have homosexual friends and had an annoying habit of slapping aide’s bottoms (poor von Ilsemann gets his butt smacked in the film), but overall, he seems to have gone for women. In the movie, he tells Mieke about his first love, Princes Elizabeth von Hesse (now a saint in the Russian Orthodox iconography). That is a historical fact, Princess Ella broke young Wilhelm’s heart when she married “a Romanov!” as the Kaiser scoffs.

When confronted with the evidence of Brand-Mieke’s affair, the Kaiser decides to become their Cupid and confides he has fathered two children out of wedlock, one with a countess another with a prostitute. You would not find such information in his biographies, but there is a family in Norway that claims to descend from the Kaiser’s offspring with a local woman. Then, in Sydney there is another family that believes to stem from a love child begotten by Wilhelm and Princess Elisa Radziwill.

Book and film stress the fact that Wilhelm has a tremendous crush on his little maid. He tells von Ilsemann “If I was a hundred years younger…”so it would be possible for him to care for MIeke’s welfare. But the point remains. Mieke is Jewish and the Kaiser hates the Jews.

Like many of his contemporaries, Kaiser Wilhelm was a cultural anti-Semite. He also loathed the Slavs, despised Catholics, and feared the Yellow Peril.  He was wise enough to keep his views on the Jews within his intimate circle, while openly embracing the liberal views and tolerant attitudes of an enlightened monarch. At that embarrassing dinner at Huis Doorn, one of Himmler’s men accuses the Kaiser of having cultivated Jewish friends in his reigning days. Indeed, I could provide him with a small list:  Albert Sommer, the Kaiser’s school chum; his adviser, banker Max Warburg; shipping magnate Albert Ballin who committed suicide on the day of Wilhelm’s abdication; and Walther Rathenau, first president of Republican Germany, murdered by the Nazis on 1923.
The Kaiser and his friend Albert Balling at the launch of the Bismarck (1914)

Things changed after his exile. Like Hitler, the Kaiser blamed the Jews for Germany’s defeat and grew to believe in the existence of a Jewish conspiracy. He spoke about it and wrote about it, and yet he did not like the Nazis methods. Kristallnacht horrified him forcing him to declare:  “For the first time, I’m ashamed to be German.” When his son, and ardent Nazi, Prince Awi tried to explain why the wreckage had been necessary, Wilhelm disowned him.

This is not a surprising stance considering it had a precedent. Just like his British family, Wilhelm had been pro-Dreyfuss. He wrote to his grandmother (who called Captain Dreyfuss a “poor martyr”) that the affair was giving rise to French anti-Semitism. Oddly, the Kaiser did not see himself as part of an anti-Semitic coterie. Why should he when his government was much more tolerant of the Jews than other European countries? Emperor Franz -Joseph could publicly praise the domestic virtue of Orthodox Jews, but Orthodox Jews were segregated and murdered throughout his empire. Tsar Nicholas II, Wilhelm’s first cousin, considered himself a liberal man, but in his Russia,  Jews were mistreated, expelled and massacred.
French drawing protesting the Kishinev Pogrom.

There is a marvelous line in “Schindler’s List”: “this is not old-fashioned Jew-hating. This is policy.” It’s the difference between disliking Jews and exterminating them. It doesn’t mean, that under the right circumstances, the Jew-hater would not become an exterminator, but luckily it didn’t happen often. It is extraordinary how people who didn’t care for Jews helped them in Nazi Europe. The merit of rescuers lies on the fact that few of them were philo-Semites.

Cultural anti-Semites tend to focus on different negative images attached to Jews throughout their history: Christ-killers; devil-worshippers; well- poisoners; plague-bringers, corrupt bankers, Bolshevik commissars, muckraking journalists, lewd Hollywood moguls, atheist professors, gun-toting Israeli soldiers, etc. A pretty, refined damsel-in- distress is not one of those stereotypes. So, it’s possible that the Kaiser cared enough for Mieke to aid her.

All and all, I enjoyed “The Exception” and particularly loved its ending. Although I would have preferred to see Brand, Mieke and Kaiser fleeing the Nazis and ending up on a Broadway stage singing “Edelweiss” together.

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