Maven's Nest

Reel Life: Flick Pix

The Kaiser, a loyal German soldier, a Jewish woman spy, and a sexy separate peace

Directed by David Leveaux
Produced by Lou Pitt and Judy Tossell
Written by Simon Burke, based on The Kaiser’s Last Kiss by Alan Judd
Released by A24 and Direct TV
UK/USA. 107 min. Rated R
With: Christopher Plummer, Lily James, Jai Courtney, Janet McTeer, Ben Daniels, Eddie Marsan and Mark Dexter

By Nora Lee Mandel

The Exception is set in 1940 at a 19th century estate in rural Netherlands -- Germany’s past imperialism that lost World War I collides very personally and frankly with the new ruthless paradigm when the Nazis quickly invade. Caught between this stark clash of values are a loyal German soldier and a Jewish woman spy who make a sexy separate peace. Theater director David Leveaux debuts in film, and his emphasis on the fine acting ensemble successfully and absorbingly intertwines the fictional characters with the historical figures.

Christopher Plummer perfectly embodies an Ancien Régime as Kaiser Wilhelm II (as referred to in Wonder Woman) who really was in isolated exile at Huis Doorn just outside of Utrecht, from November 1918 when the Allies, and German mutineers, forced his abdication to end that war. The octogenarian monarch who started life as the eldest and favorite grandchild of Queen Victoria, and still smarts over insults from his “Uncle Friedrich” III and a princess later deposed by the Bolsheviks, can now only influence his environment by chopping wood and feeding ducks. His ineffective military campaigns are symbolized by a closet full of formal uniforms from every unit of which he was only the titular head. Prone to dry, witty monologues on archaeology, he has all the prejudices and mannerisms of his time and class, including the aristocracy’s casual anti-Semitism. Yet Plummer, who was intended for the role through over a decade of development by scripter Simon Burke, with similar dexterity he displayed in the recent Remember, twinkles with droll kindness toward his staff, from his loyal aide de camp Colonel Sigurd von Ilsemann (Ben Daniels) to a comely new addition, Dutch maid Mieke de Jong (Lily James), who he can tell hasn’t done this kind of work before.

His haughty second wife, Princess Hermine Reuss of Greiz (Janet McTeer) is like a White Russian still nostalgically living in the high society of pre-1918. She is busy petitioning Hitler for restoration of the monarchy, but nervously because she wants the Third Reich to keep paying their allowance while she prepares for their triumphant return to Berlin. (Her husband’s exegesis on the Sanskrit roots of the swastika sends her into a paroxysm of apologies to a Nazi guest.)

Into this archaic atmosphere strides hunky Captain Stefan Brandt, who didn’t even know his ex-emperor was still alive. [A digression about Jai Courtney – I first became a fan in TV’s Spartacus and then indies like Felony from his native Australia, but I don’t usually cover Hollywood flicks, so I didn’t even know he 'd made it up to The Show in Suicide Squad, the Divergents, and Terminator: Genisys.] Looking like the very model of a Nazi officer, he’s assigned to ostensibly protect the Kaiser (Wehrmacht troops did guard him), but really is there to report on his household to the Gestapo, offered as a chance to make up for some earlier failing by the career soldier. The Gestapo Inspector Dietrich (Mark Dexter) warns him that a British spy is in the area trying to reach the Kaiser, and they are closing in on the transmitter. (Winston Churchill did offer him asylum.) Captain Brandt takes his inspections seriously – including thoroughly inspecting Mieke the maid – and she coolly inspects all of him. She confesses she’s Jewish - -and can tell he’s not. Until they lose their cool in passion, despite his growing suspicions about her. (They do also share a copy of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil.)

The household and the relentless Gestapo are thrown into overdrive by the overnight stay of the head of the SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler (Eddie Marsan), with his blowsy mistress in tow. (Hermann Göring did actually visit the Kaiser.) For all the obsequiousness of the Princess, literary anecdotes of the Kaiser, and formality of the Captain, they are all taken aback by the mousey-looking Himmler’s detailed insistence on the need for euthanasia of unneeded people in the “re-ordering” of society. Even in this elegant mansion, World War II becomes more a morality play than a military offensive.

Changes from the source book, The Kaiser’s Last Kiss by Alan Judd, encourage the audience to root for the Captain’s and Mieke’s forbidden love. In addition to a name change, he appears to be in the regular army, while his original proud status was in the more brutal Waffen-SS; instead of being haunted by the SS shooting British prisoners-of-war, his nightmares are of the murder of Polish civilians. While her seductive manipulation of him in the book was a neat gender reversal in the genre, she’s more three-dimensional here, even with her motivation for family revenge, making for a rare Jewish heroine in films. The couple’s interplay is more extreme at the beginning of their relationship, and after a tense chase there’s an intriguing new epilogue to keep you guessing about their future.

While Saul Dibb’s recent beautiful adaptation of Suite Française has a verboten romance with another Nazi “exception” that is more elegiac, The Exception matches the intelligence and excitement of Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book (Zwartboek) (2006) as an enticing and believable thriller for adults.

(previewed at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival)

June 3, 2017

Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews

Since August 2006, edited versions of most of my reviews of documentaries/indie/foreign films are at Film-Forward; since 2012, festival overviews at FilmFestivalTraveler; and, since 2016, coverage of women-made films at FF2 Media. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.

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