Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 47 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 2; Language 1; Sex 5/Nudity 5.
Our star rating (1-5): 4.5
I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20 loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
And to this people you shall say: Thus says the Lord: See, I am setting before you the way of life and the way of death.
After watching director David Leveaux and screenwriter Simon Burke’s film, its title reminded me of Steven Soderbergh’s 2007 The Good German. That earlier film title, set in the immediate post-WW 2 years in Germany, refers to any German who either opposed the Nazis or who served in the government or armed forces but did not know about the Holocaust. In this new film, based on Alan Judd’s novel “The Kaiser’s Last Kiss,” which mixes fictional characters with historical ones, the German Army Capt. Stefan Brandt (Jai Courtney) is at least twice called “the exceptional” in regard to his fellow Nazi officers—for a reason that is slowly revealed as events unfold.
The story begins in 1940 when the Captain is reluctantly in Berlin rather than participating in the fighting because of some “business with the SS in Poland.” He is given the assignment to go to the Netherlands to assume command of the personal bodyguard of the exiled Kaiser Wilhelm II, a man whom he had presumed dead. Unhappy with the assignment, he asks how he can do this in another country, and his superior informs him that the Reich forces are at that moment taking over Holland. He is to receive the assignment as an honor, he is told, because the Kaiser is till of “tremendous symbolic importance to the German people.”
The ex-Kaiser (Christopher Plummer) is living on a magnificent country estate outside Utrecht. Thanks to payments by the German government he has not wanted for anything in order to maintain a royal standard of living. The old man is supported by a loyal staff that includes his aide-de-camp Col. von Ilsemann (Ben Daniels), plus his crafty empress, the Princess Hermine (Janet McTeer). The newest member of his staff is a maid named Mieke de Jong (Lily James), so beautiful that the old man remarks that if here a hundred years younger, he might…
The new movie is an intriguing blend of a small amount of history with an erotic romance. Brandt has no sooner arrived and presented himself at the mansion when, alone with Mieke who has brought a message to his cottage, he orders her to take off her clothes. She meekly complies, but he is unable to perform. However, later, whether out of attraction or pity, she comes and tells him to take off his clothes. Lovers of bodice-busting novels will probably find their romance greatly entertaining.
The history part of the film gives the great actor Christopher Plummer a fine opportunity to show off his talent. His version of the ruler is of an old temperamental man set in a routine of feeding the ducks, chopping wood, hunting, and dreaming of returning to assume the throne again. Like the real Kaiser, his is a man of conflicting opinions—he is anti-Semitic yet deplores Hitler’s brutal treatment of the Jews; despises Hitler yet is happy for the Führer’s military victories. Like his wife, he hopes that Hitler will bring him home to assume his royal title again.
There is intrigue afoot when Brandt, who by now in love with Mieke, and she so much with him that she reveals that she is a Jew, learns that there is an Allied spy in the region. The agent operates a radio somewhere in the region, so a second mobile radio detection van is sent for so that the Germans can triangulate his position. It is no spoiler, I am sure, to reveal that Mieke is bringing the spy news of events of the ex-Kaiser’s household.
When Brandt discovers a pistol hidden in Mieke’s room, he is pulled by his loyalty to his country and to her. At one point he asks if there is a loyalty to something greater than one’s country. His decision grows more difficult when the news arrives that Heinrich Himmler (Eddie Marsan), second in command to Hitler, will soon pay a visit. Mieke vows vengeance because her family was destroyed by the butcher.
Our dawning awareness that Capt. Brandt is “the exception” to his fellow SS officers comes be means of some short flashbacks. At first we see a couple of times an overhead shot of a girl, possibly 12 or so, sprawled on the ground. This is repeated, until, from a higher vantage point, we see that the girl is at the edge of what seems to be a cluster of hundreds of dead bodies, all of them civilians. Brandt apparently had not accepted such atrocious tactics and made a protest, hence the rumor voiced by a fellow officer that the man had been in some trouble in Poland, and that if he had not high connections, he would have been executed.
Like the fictional Captain Brandt, I knew nothing of Kaiser Wilhelm’s fate following his abdication and exile, so I found the film fascinating. My usual looking out for “a moment of grace” was rewarded by the scene in which Mieke and Brandt, caught in one of their trysts, is brought by the outraged Empress to her husband out of the expectation that both will be publicly disgraced and banished from the house. Everyone is surprised by what he says and does.
The graciousness of the old man (he was 82 when he died a year later) comes through also in the climax of the film during a flight from the SS, now aware that Mieke is also a spy. I wish the real Kaiser Wilhelm II had been more like Mr. Plummer’s depiction, instead of the temperamental man, subject to scandalous outbursts very like a certain U.S. president.
The romance and adventure are thrilling, but the main reason that I recommend this film is Mr. Plummer’s fine performance—and in every scene together Janet McTeer as the Empress is his equal. Indeed, I agree with the IMDB reviewer who calls her a “Lady Macbeth.”
Beyond its entertainment value, the film also serves as a visual parable dealing with the choice between good and evil.
Note: For information on the real Kaiser see the Wikipedia article at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilhelm_II,_German_Emperor
This review with a set of questions will be in the. 2017 issue of VP.