Unconscious Prejudice Meets Real-World Horror In 'The Exception'

Jun 24, 2017
Originally published on June 26, 2017 10:25 am

Berlin, 1940. A young Nazi officer is given a new mission: The Reich is sending him to Holland, to guard the exiled former German emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II. That's the premise of a new feature film, The Exception — it's a spy story, with steamy sex, intrigue and history rolled in.

Director David Leveaux says the Kaiser was a complicated figure, someone who bore a lot of the responsibility for the conflagration that was World War I. "It's interesting that a man carrying that degree of guilt on his shoulders, at the same time as being almost unremittingly hubristic and reflexively culturally anti-Semitic — all the things that he had about him make him quite a complex character to tell a story about, simply because he is neither good nor wholly bad."


Interview Highlights

On the Kaiser's dreams of resurrecting the monarchy

That is the premise of the film, which is that with the ascendance of National Socialism and Hitler in Germany, the completely delusional notion that possibly they might want their former emperor back, even in a sort of symbolic way. And the film turns very much, ultimately, on the Kaiser coming to recognize that the Germany as represented by National Socialism and the Nazis has nothing whatsoever in common with the Germany of his own memory.

On directing Christopher Plummer

He was really quite fearless about wanting to play, sometimes, some of the ludicrously foolish aspects of this old man ... he's a man who has a hundred uniforms, but hasn't made a decision since 1918, about anything except possibly what's for dinner. And Christopher's sense of the theatrical nature of the man, in other words, a man wearing the outer garments of power, but with no power himself, was also an inherently comedic idea. ... Also, by the way, he was known very fondly by the younger actors as "One-Take Plummer."

On portraying the Kaiser's anti-Semitism

We felt it was very important to be clear and honest about the fact that that man had an almost knee-jerk, reflexive, and I'll call it cultural anti-Semitism. He grew up with it, it was part of his set of beliefs, but one of the things we were also aware of was that in the entire time of his reign, there was never a directly, specifically organized campaign made against the Jewish community in Germany, that obviously came with the rise of National Socialism.

And the reason why I'm putting it in those terms was that it was passionately important to me, and to Christopher, to be able to show what happens when a person harbors any form of uninterrogated racism or bigotry, what happens when that person encounters a person who is willing to take that reflex prejudice and bigotry to the next level. ... I was interested in delving into the psychological processes of a lethal kind of bigotry, and the way it can lie dormant in a character like the Kaiser, who thinks of himself as being Christian and good.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Berlin, 1940. A young German officer is given a new mission. The Reich is sending him to Holland to guard the exiled former German Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE EXCEPTION")

ANTON LESSER: (As General Falkenberg) This posting is a great honor.

JAI COURTNEY: (As Stefan Brandt) Yes, general. Thank you, general. General, if the Kaiser's in Holland, how am I supposed to guard him?

LESSER: (As General Falkenberg) At dawn this morning, our forces invaded Belgium and the Netherlands. The fuehrer thinks of everything.

BLOCK: That's from the opening of a new feature film titled "The Exception." What follows is a World War II spy story with steamy sex, intrigue and history rolled in. Its director is David Leveaux, who joins me now from London. Welcome to the program.

DAVID LEVEAUX: It's a great pleasure to be here.

BLOCK: And let's start by talking about Kaiser Wilhelm. He's played in the film with gusto by the great Christopher Plummer. Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated the throne in 1918 under duress, lived out his life in exile in the Netherlands. Does he strike you as a complicated figure?

LEVEAUX: He is a complicated figure, certainly, seen from the outside, in the sense that you clearly have a man who bears a large part of responsibility for the conflagration that was the First World War as much through negligence as anything else. But it's interesting that a man carrying that degree of guilt on his shoulders - at the same time as being almost unremittingly hubristic and, you know, reflexively, culturally anti-Semitic - all the things that, you know, he had about him, you know, make him quite a complex character to tell a story about simply because he is neither good nor wholly bad.

BLOCK: Yeah. And, as you mentioned, he is - he knows he's blamed for Germany's dire losses in World War I.

LEVEAUX: Yeah.

BLOCK: He's aggrieved. He's resentful. And he gets especially outraged about this when he's been drinking. Let's listen to part of one scene where this is what's going on.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE EXCEPTION")

CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER: (As Kaiser Wilhelm) Am I to blame for every misfortune on this earth? I gave my life to the Fatherland, and this is my thanks? Nobody cares. My navy betrayed me. Nobody remembers my army fell apart. Ludendorff, Bethmann, Tirpitz - where were they? Where were they? Where were they? After all I've done for them, they stabbed me in the back.

BLOCK: Christopher Plummer there as Kaiser Wilhelm II, who has dreams of resurrecting both his reputation and the monarchy.

LEVEAUX: Yes, indeed. That is the premise of the film, which is that with the ascendancy of National Socialism and Hitler in Germany - the completely delusional notion that, possibly, they might want their former empire back even in a sort of symbolic way. And the film turns very much ultimately on the Kaiser coming to recognize that Germany as represented by National Socialism and the Nazis has nothing whatsoever in common with the Germany of his own memory and of his own history.

BLOCK: Talk a bit about directing Christopher Plummer in this role. He really dives into the part with his military carriage and his medals and braids and bars and his closet full of uniforms.

LEVEAUX: He was really quite fearless about wanting to play, sometimes, some of the ludicrously foolish aspects of this old man.

BLOCK: Like what?

LEVEAUX: You know, you just played a part of a scene there when he's yelling at the dinner table. And, of course, it is sort of hubristic and, in a way, rather sort of tragic. But there's also something absolutely ridiculous about it. I mean, it's a man who has a hundred uniforms but hasn't made a decision since 1918 about anything except possibly what's for dinner.

And Christopher's sense of the theatrical nature of the man - in other words, a man wearing the outer garments of power but with no power himself - you know, was also an inherently comedic idea, which is sort of - are tearily woven through, you know, what is also a tragedy, really, about a man reaching old age and realizing that he has made a mess of his entire life and lost his country. And it was really quite extraordinary to see. And, also, by the way, he was known very fondly by the younger actors as one-take Plummer...

BLOCK: (Laughter).

LEVEAUX: ...Rather enviously by them because they were trying to work out how it was possible that Christopher could in one take land something so complicated that would take them, they thought, three or four or five takes.

BLOCK: We do see the Kaiser's softer side in a number of scenes when he's feeding the ducks. But we also hear him voice his own anti-Semitism. And I want to play a bit of one scene. He's talking about Otto von Bismarck, the so-called Iron Chancellor whom the Kaiser has forced out.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE EXCEPTION")

PLUMMER: (As Kaiser Wilhelm) But I must say the old boy knew how to deal with troublemakers, Freemasons, Bolsheviks, Jews - the unholy alliance that we have to face, which is exactly why a strong monarchy, the physical manifestation of God's will on earth, is more vital now than ever.

BLOCK: I gather, David that, in truth, the exiled Kaiser had far more rabid things to say about Jews than we hear in this film. How much did you tone him down?

LEVEAUX: I wouldn't describe as toning it down. We felt it was very important to be clear and honest about the fact that that man had an almost knee-jerk, reflexive - and I'll call it cultural - anti-Semitism. He grew up with it. It was part of his set of beliefs.

But one of the things we were also aware of is that, you know, in the entire time of his reign, there was never directly, you know, specifically organized campaign made against the Jewish community in Germany. That honestly came with the rise of National Socialism. And the reason why I'm putting it in those terms is because it was passionately important to me and to Christopher to be able to show what happens when a person harbors any form of an interrogated racism or bigotry.

What happens when that person encounters a person who is willing to take that reflex prejudice and bigotry to the next level? - that level being a practical one and in the case of Heinrich Himmler, who comes to dinner, involves Himmler describing very precisely and very calmly the industrialization of the murder of children.

BLOCK: Yes.

LEVEAUX: If you like, I had on my mental postcard that I wanted it to be a film about two Germanies colliding. So we weren't really in the business of turning anything down. But I was interested in delving into the psychological processes of a lethal kind of bigotry and the way it can lie dormant in a character like the Kaiser, who thinks of himself as being Christian and good and being, you know, ultimately for the good of the country. And, of course, he has to learn that lesson in our film in a shocking moment.

BLOCK: David Leveaux directed the film "The Exception." Mr. Leveaux, thanks so much.

LEVEAUX: You're most welcome. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.