by Brenda W. Clough
Stephen Sondheim famously complained in “Putting It Together” that the audience doesn’t want to be socked with novelty. It wants what it already knows. And since we all know this, the artist is always trying to slip new things in under the same old guise. Or, alternatively, shuffling up an old story but setting it in the year 2301.
So The Exception looks like that tired old warhorse, the WW2 movie. Bad Nazis, good Jewish partisans, we know this one. Only when you sit down in the movie theater do you realize that this one is actually its alternative, the new thing hidden under the same old facade. There are bad Germans, for sure — Heinrich Himmler is the quintessential villain. But the protagonist is Capt. Brandt, a Nazi whose allegiance is not to the Party but to the country — to Germany. And his eventual ally is none other than Kaiser Wilhelm II, once Emperor of Germany and the driver behind the first World War.
Christopher Plummer is perhaps best known for wearing WWI medals and singing “Edelweiss” in The Sound of Music. Now a magnificent 88 years old, he’s perfectly cast as the choleric Kaiser, who has been living in grumpy posh exile in the Netherlands these past twenty-odd years. In 1940 Capt. Brandt is tasked with security for the old monarch, just in case the Allies want to assassinate him — or perhaps spirit him away to his royal cousins in England. And the local Gestapo is counting on Brandt to report back, in case Wilhelm is plotting with any royalists, and English spies are hiding in the village, and the Empress is dying to get back onto the throne and pay back all the relatives who snubbed her, and there’s this hot maidservant in the household who apparently doesn’t believe in underwear…
Everything forebodes great developments, and the plot does not fail. This film is the reverse of is the superhero movie, in which the protagonists must Save The World. The world is not saved in this movie; 1940 was not a year when prospects were golden for anybody. But people fight for their integrity, for love, for their duty. And that actually makes for a better story than gods enhanced by SFX fighting people in spandex. It hasn’t gotten a wide release yet, but the reviews are good and here’s an interview with the director on NPR. This movie is catnip for the history maven; go and enjoy it.