A gripping and passionate drama.
The Exception is a spy thriller and love story that mines a forgotten pocket of 20th century history to create a gripping and passionate drama, based on the compelling novel “The Kaiser’s Last Kiss” by Alan Judd.
It marks British theatre director David Leveaux’s remarkable directorial debut, from a crackling screenplay adaptation by Simon Burke (Persuasion), transporting us to the relative peace of the exiled German Kaiser Wilhelm II’s post-Imperial court in Holland in 1940 as the Nazis invade Belgium and the Netherlands. The house and grounds at “Doorn” provide the backdrop as both Hitler and Churchill send envoys to the estate – a British spy and a Wehrmacht officer.
Events and fate conspire to bring the two envoys closer together than either had intended. And leave them facing choices between duty and desire.
”It was passionately important to me … to be able to show what happens when a person harbors any form of uninterrogated racism or bigotry … encounters a person who is willing to take that reflex prejudice and bigotry to the next level,” says Leveaux.
A German officer (Jai Courtney) is sent to Holland to determine if the British Secret Service has infiltrated the home of Kaiser Wilhelm II (Christopher Plummer) during the onset of World War II, but starts a lethally dangerous affair with a young Jewish Dutch woman (Lily James) with consequences neither they nor the Kaiser could have foreseen.
A Note From Director David Leveaux
Recent theatre productions that Leveaux directed include: Closer (London) Romeo & Juliet with Orlando Bloom (Broadway), Rudolph(Tokyo Japan), CQ/CX (Atlantic Theatre Co. NY), The Late Middle Classes (Donmar), Passion Play (West End) Tales Of Ballycumber (Abbey Theatre, Dublin), Arcadia (West End & Broadway), A Doll’s House (Tokyo Japan), Three Sisters (Abbey Theatre, Dublin).
Previous Broadway productions include: Cyrano with Kevin Kline and Jennifer Garner, The Glass Menagerie with Jessica Lange and Fiddler On The Roof. Tom Stoppard’s Jumpers(Tony Award nom. for Outstanding Direction), Ninewith Antonio Banderas (Tony Award for Best Revival and nom. for outstanding Direction), Stoppard’s The Real Thing (Tony Award for Best Revival), Harold Pinter’s Betrayal with Juliette Binoche, Electra with Zoë Wanamaker (Tony Award nom.), Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christue with Liam Neeson and Natasha Richardson (Tony Award for Best Revival) and A Moon For The Misbegotten with Kate Nelligan (Tony Award nom. for Outstanding Direction).
Until I read Alan Judd’s compelling novel, I had no idea that the last Kaiser of Germany had lived until 1941. I had just rather lazily assumed he’d ‘faded’ away sometime after he fled into exile in Holland in the closing weeks of the First World War in 1918. Part of the reason for this was of course that he seemed to be so much of ‘another’ generation – one shaped in the cultural context of the 19th Century – that it was inconceivable to me that he could have been alive when the conflict that would define our modern world in the 20th Century ignited.
Alan Judd is a novelist and biographer who has previously served in the army and the Foreign Office. Chosen as one of the original twenty Best Young British Novelists, Judd has since won the Royal Society of Literature’s Winifred Holtby Award, the Heinemann Award and the Guardian Fiction Award. His biography of the founder of MI6 was shortlisted for the Westminster Prize and two of his Charles Thoroughgood novels, Breed of Heroes and Legacy, were filmed for the BBC. His forthcoming novel, Slipstream, is about the coming of age of a Canadian fighter pilot in World War Two.
But that was the central dramatic proposition of Judd’s story that first attracted me: the collision of ‘two Germanys’ – two eras, and two radically different myths or ideas of nation, coming into a head on confrontation. And it was also what made it resonate in our own time when such questions of identity are again on the rise.
But of course a film has to stand on its own feet, not merely lean on its source material for authority. It must justify its own existence. And in addition, I had no interest in making a ‘history lesson’.
What elevated it into a modern ‘fable’ – and therefore, for me, into a film – were the elements of the story that acquired a wider human resonance, and not merely the iteration of a sequence of events that once happened or representation of historical characters for its own sake. To that end, our film inevitably began to evolve its own interests and themes.
That process naturally had to begin with the character of the Kaiser himself. And in the course of several discussions with Christopher Plummer and our writer, Simon Burke, one thing became very clear to us: that this was in no way to be an attempt to ‘redeem’ a man whose shared culpability for a war that killed millions is engraved in fact. Nor did we want to dodge the reflexive cultural anti-semitism, the hauteur, the irascible unreasonableness that were the very flaws that had led to his downfall and European catastrophe. In fact, the further we went in this direction, the more ‘Shakespearean’ the character became in the sense that he is built upon so many contradictions: the absurdity the foolishness, the sorrow, of an intermittently Lear-like character looking back on a life of failure. Our purpose was not to redeem. But to show a man capable of re-acquiring his humanity for a moment and late in his life.
That is not something limited to the last Kaiser. Nor does it depend on an exact historical representation of him. But the central idea of a man living in exile, with a hundred uniforms and no decisions to make other than what’s for dinner struck a chord for both Christopher and myself as being both poignant and funny, and oddly beautiful – a searing image of a kind of spiritual impotence locked into the rigidity of a uniform.
When I first visited House Doorn outside Utrecht with our producer, Judy Tossell, and Simon Burke, the image that came to mind on seeing that house, surrounded by a moat and woodland, was of a kind of forlorn 19th Century ‘Eden’ – a place where you could easily imagine the former monarch, inured against the noise and hurtling destruction of the outside world, oblivious even to its terrible darkness. And picture him urged on by the great love of his wife Hermine dedicating herself to nothing less than the restoration not only of his throne, but – to her mind – of his very manhood. And then that ‘idyll’ being shattered as the machinery and armoury and gasoline of modern warfare snakes up the drive to deliver Heinrich Himmler and the clarity of pure evil to their doorstep.
Once that image took hold for me, it seemed obvious that ultimately – historical context aside – this film was going to have to do with the struggle of love over death. And it would depend as much – or more – on the complex nuances of the human heart as upon the epic events that frame it.
The foundation of Judd’s book depends on the historical fact that the Kaiser was in exile in Holland at the time the Nazis invaded the country in 1940 and thus ‘re-acquired’ the problem of what to do with their former monarch – an issue that could well have become symbolically inflammatory from all sides.
But the invented elements and characters, above all the young Dutch Jewish woman Mieke and the Wehrmacht officer Brandt on whose relationship much of the action of both Judd’s book and this film depends, were never intended as romantic ‘add-ons’ to adorn the thing with an ‘obligatory’ love story. In many ways, I felt they catalysed something absolutely central to the purpose of the film – namely the moment of decision when ideology, or even duty, must give way to the most moral question of all – what makes us human? Because it is at that point – and perhaps only at that point – that people who by any stretch of the imagination should have nothing in common, or even conceive of each other as enemies, find the unlikeliest but deepest of common bonds. And one of the challenges I was particularly drawn to in the film was to try to express the subtle processes by which people communicate – often in silent and coded ways – across the divide of difference, even when they are unaware that they are either sending or receiving those messages. The morse code that runs through the film was to that end intended to weave into the ‘love’ scenes as much as it emanates in reality from the spy story, the ‘ticking clock’ that supplies the pressure to expose the silent heart.
The character of Mieke was also a key, because dynamically she became a living challenge to the aridities of ideology and masculine codes of war. It was as if she brought an explosive and unsettling disorder into this very male world. I had what I would only half-jokingly call a ‘running gag’ about uniforms in the film. There are many of them, for obvious reasons, but they also beg the question that Mieke implicitly asks of Brandt: ‘ What kind of a man are you once the uniform comes off ?” Mieke’s silent witness to the absurdities and destructive vanity of war produced Simon’s scene of her standing in a doorway observing the Kaiser’s uniform collection with something like perplexity, before turning out the light.
I could hardly claim that ‘love over death’ is exactly an original theme for a movie….but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth saying over and over again. And in this case, we didn’t intend it to be limited to ‘romantic’ love. It was also meant to be unsettling, subversive, and sometimes damaged love – but stealthily emerging across generations and ideologies in a uniting rage against tyranny, and the dying of the light – even enthralling a culpable old man who I sometimes felt would almost rather have his youth restored than his throne. It’s messy but at least it’s human – and was certainly more interesting – and perhaps more ‘real’ – to me than a story of ‘redemption’. It is the flickers of grace that intermittently illuminate the darkest streams of history, and by which imperfect humanity trumps the ‘perfection’ of tyranny, that really interested me. And that grace – which to my mind lurks in Brandt and Mieke and Hermine as much as in the Kaiser – is not limited to famous ‘heroes’. Or to ‘good’ men.
The usual – and probably wise – advice in adapting a story to film is to ‘open it up’ for visual range. But in this case, we increasingly found that the canvas actually felt larger the more the film was limited to the house, a clearing and a few other key locations. It was as if keeping the vast epic events of the war just outside the frame, with the enormous pressure of those unseen events bearing in on each character and each choice, seemed to magnify the stakes. The war would be present in every glance, or detail, or urgent fumbling of desire – because all these details are hurtling along on the edge of death.
Screenwriter Simon Burke was born into a London-Irish family in the post-industrial North of England; he left Oxford with a First in German and lived in Berlin for some years before settling in London. His debut play, The Lodger, won the prestigious Mobil Prize and was performed in Manchester, London and Europe.
He wrote the hit tv show Chancer – the TV debut of actor Clive Owen – and is well known for adapting classics including Tom Jones, Sons and Lovers, White Teeth and Jane Austen’s Persuasion, starring Sally Hawkins. He also created the Zen trilogy for Rufus Sewell as well as the London-New York love story Ny-Lon, starring Stephen Moyer and Rashida Jones.
His short film Jealousy, starring Paul Nicholls, has just been included in the film festivals in Palm Springs, Rome and Austin, Texas.
He is currently working on an adaptation of Vikas Swarup’s new novel The Accidental Apprentice and a film about the master forger Han van Meegeren for Steve Coogan’s company Baby Cow. Married with two children, he divides his time between Rome, Perugia and London.
And in that respect, I was also thinking of something I witnessed in the late 1980s when I was in my 20s and working in what was then East Berlin. I’ve no doubt that my experiences in Berlin at that time have everything to do with my immediate attraction to this story when I was lucky enough for it to come my way. But this one instance made an enormous impression on me:
The weekend before East Germany finally collapsed, there was a large march in East Berlin, and I was on it. It was a happy, optimistic, sunny day, full of children, and you genuinely felt revolution was not just in the air but on the streets.
Above all, it felt weirdly innocent. The march ended up in front of the ‘Volkskammer’, the East German Parliament. And there I saw a young boy dancing for joy on top of a prop coffin with the words ‘Stasi 1948-1989 RIP’ daubed on its side. It was a startling image, but one that more than anything else that day conveyed – in an improvised moment – the tectonic shifts that were taking place across Europe. I couldn’t invent anything that would better illustrate the fact that ‘history’ is sometimes expressed not in an epic sweep of facts and events, but in a detail like a boy dancing on a coffin, or, in the case of our film, a hand across a dinner table, a falling dress, or a glance. Because that’s when we are there too.
Fact and fiction: As described in the story, a detachment of Wehrmacht troops was indeed sent to guard the exiled Kaiser Wilhelm II when the Nazis invaded the Netherlands, but Brandt is an imagined character. And Churchill did indeed offer the Kaiser asylum in the United Kingdom, but the invitation was conveyed to him in different circumstances to those described in the book and film. It was in fact the mayor of neighbouring town Utrecht who conveyed the secret message. As far as we know it is also fiction that the British smuggled a spy into the Kaiser’s household. Heinrich Himmler did not visit the Kaiser at Huis Doorn, but Hermann Göring did. An incident in the book and film during which Wilhelm’s wife Princess Hermine gives Himmler an envelope of money is based on a similar incident involving Goering.