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Don’t Make Me Love You, Old Man: David Leveaux’s The Exception

A German soldier of the Second World War receives a new assignment. As he carries out his mission, he happens to meet a beautiful woman that he immediately and totally falls in love with. This woman, a soldier in her own right, is in fact Jewish, and their relationship will show the soldier the value of humanity and the error of the ways of Third Reich. Even from just hearing its title, Heather and I knew the entire plot of David Leveaux’s The Exception when it popped up on Heather’s Netflix recommendations. Even still, I was intrigued. There was a wrinkle to this movie that made it potentially fascinating for this student of history: that soldier’s assignment is, in this case, guarding the former Kaiser of the Second German Reich: Wilhelm II.

Yes indeed, folks, if you weren’t already aware, the largely reviled and demonized Kaiser Wilhelm II did survive the First World War and would continue to live in exile in Holland some years into the Second. This is for the most part an inconsequential footnote to history; there was never any serious attempt to restore the Kaiser by the Nazi regime (subplot of The Exception notwithstanding). One cannot help but wonder, however, how the infamously prickly Wilhelm might have viewed what his former empire became decades after his abdication. It, and the experiences of many Great War veterans in the 1940s, feels like the historian’s version of Star Wars fans eagerly seeking out the adventures of now-middle aged Luke Skywalker as darkness once again falls across the galaxy (though maybe in this case, more like an elderly Grand Moff Tarkin).

The main romantic subplot of The Exception is, if anything, more predictable and safe than we first thought. Jai Cortney’s Captain Stefan Brandt is already a rebel against the Nazis before the movie begins; we are told that he was lucky to escape discharge or worse after some mysterious act of insubordination during the invasion of Poland. His and Jewish SAS agent Mieke de Jong’s love of course burns bright, fast, and tragic, though its initiation was certainly surprisingly…shall we say, bold, for such a movie. The Kaiser, well past his prime and resigned to a fate far from his former realm, has mellowed, and after some initially crabby monologues, proves himself to be the lovable, avuncular guardian of his two charges, ultimately ensuring Mieke’s escape and Stefan’s innocence.

It is hear, however, that I found my gravest objection to The Exception: I will be damned if I ever find Kaiser Wilhelm II to be a likable or even sympathetic figure, and I might go so far as to say such a portrayal would be ahistorical. This is the man that, either through malice or brash incompetence, turned a localized Balkan conflict into the First World War, and who spent the preceding decades in a parade of pique and wounded schoolyard pride that made that later conflagration likely. He was, from all accounts, a man of fragile ego and robust hubris, and he was in all probability lucky that he abdicated when he did, before he suffered a worse fate in the ensuing peace settlement. As you can tell, I’m not exactly unbiased in my opinion of him. And yet, romance aside, The Exception is largely accurate in its portrayal of Wilhelm’s views toward Nazism. He deplored the might-makes-right lawlessness of Hitler’s regime, and disowned his son after that son expressed support of Jewish pogroms in Germany. It is a good reminder that the characters that move across our history pages are themselves real people, with complicated views and legacies, though I’ve always personally taken this as evidence of the absolute depravity of the Third Reich more than vindication for Wilhelm.

As Heather and I reached the end of The Exception, I cannot say we had a transcendent viewing experience, or that we didn’t predict at least half of the story beats down to their details. Despite its predictability, however, I cannot help but recommend this movie to fellow students of 20th century history. It forces us to grapple with the complexity of human nature, and in doing sheds light on an historical footnote not often seen. It will likely not impress you, but I believe your notion of history will emerge, if not bettered, at least challenged because of it.

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