Lessons from the Kaiser?

Christopher Plummer began his cinematic career in The Sound of Music as an imperious anti-Nazi Austrian captain who goes into exile.  Now in the winter of his career he is an exiled, imperious and elderly German emperor who’s ultimately anti-Nazi, in The Exception.  The film offers lessons for attitudes toward nation for Americans on July 4 and for all people of faith and conscience in every land.

Plummer is Kaiser Wilhelm in 1940 living on a Dutch country estate, having quit his collapsing German empire after WWI defeat over two decades before. He chops wood, quietly entertains guests and hopes his nation will again restore his throne. Instead Germany has enthroned Hitler’s dictatorship, which has invaded Holland and placed the former emperor under military protection.

The chief of the Kaiser’s new protection is a young army officer wounded in Poland, where he witnessed SS atrocities. He begins an affair with the Kaiser’s maid, who reveals to him she’s secretly Jewish while not initially revealing she’s also working for British intelligence. She’s determined to assassinate SS chief Heinrich Himmler, who visits Wilhelm ostensibly to invite him back to Berlin as emperor. At a dinner they host for the loathsome mass murderer, the Kaiser and his younger second wife, despite their preening for imperial restoration, visibly blanch as Himmler nonchalantly describes how to kill disabled children.

Himmler’s offer to Wilhelm is actually a ruse to expose dormant German monarchists, whom Hitler loathes and fears. Increasingly appalled by the Third Reich, the young army officer asks the Kaiser’s anti-Nazi military aide whether an officer has any higher duty than to his country. The aide, who recalls Hitler’s savagery, responds that the answer depends on “what is my country and does it still exist?” Persuaded by the answer, the young officer helps his Jewish girlfriend escape the Gestapo, with the obliging Kaiser’s help, after she reveals her British allegiance and conveys to a delighted Wilhelm a personal invite from Winston Churchill to escape to Britain.

The Exception is based on a well regarded novel and contains some historical truth, such as the Churchill invite, which Wilhelm politely declined. The exiled Kaiser had dreamt of returning to power, even under the Third Reich. As his aide explains in the film, Wilhelm would be a “firm and Christian presence on the throne” offering a “restraining influence,” while rallying support from the church, the army and aristocracy.

The film accurately references Wilhelm’s crackpot views, which included conspiracy theories about Jews, Freemasons, Jesuits and British capitalists. He was an older Protestant version of Francisco Franco, except the Spaniard was shrewder, more competent, and learned from his mistakes. Wilhelm couldn’t help but celebrate that the German army in WWII was accomplishing what he had failed to achieve in WWI. He aspired to an autocratic Germany dominating a united continental Europe against the Anglo Americans.

But for all his egregious faults, Wilhelm wasn’t a Nazi. Despite his own anti-Semitism, he was aghast at Kristalnacht’s “gangsterism” and disavowed his pro-Nazi son. (A grandson of the Kaiser lived in America, worked for Ford Motor Company, and was chummy with FDR, whom he said was “like a father to me.”) The Kaiser identified with an old, pre-totalitarian Europe, that was still tied to religion and tradition. In 1938 the Kaiser reputedly described Hitler:

There’s a man alone, without family, without children, without God… He builds legions, but he doesn’t build a nation. A nation is created by families, a religion, traditions: it is made up out of the hearts of mothers, the wisdom of fathers, the joy and the exuberance of children… For a few months I was inclined to believe in National Socialism. I thought of it as a necessary fever. And I was gratified to see that there were, associated with it for a time, some of the wisest and most outstanding Germans. But these, one by one, he has got rid of or even killed… He has left nothing but a bunch of shirted gangsters! This man could bring home victories to our people each year, without bringing them either glory or danger. But of our Germany, which was a nation of poets and musicians, of artists and soldiers, he has made a nation of hysterics and hermits, engulfed in a mob and led by a thousand liars or fanatics.

Whether the aged Kaiser in 1940, surrounded by German guards dispatched by Hitler, would have helped a Jewish female British agent escape his household can only be conjectured. It seems unlikely. But the fiction, wonderfully enacted by Plummer, makes for stirring entertainment in The Exception.

The film’s most poignant line is from the Kaiser’s anti-Nazi aide answering the young officer’s question about any higher authority than country, to which he responds the answer depends on “what is my country and does it still exist?” The Christian and every person of conscience in every land and in every time must examine the nature of his or her country and render allegiance to the extent that country adheres to what is true and good. When a country is just, support and strengthen. When unjust, challenge, with love and fidelity, that justice maybe attained. It’s an important message for July 4, and for all days.

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