Sunday, September 17, 2017

History as Fiction - a film review

Plummer as the reprehensible and witty Kaiser Wilhelm
I blogged yesterday about what I take to be America’s greatest weakness, its propensity for believing truth to be whatever you really want it to be. Some would argue it’s only the number two weakness, the greatest weakness being income inequality – the fact that the richest 1% now own more than the bottom 90%. No point in arguing over this, I think. It’s sufficient to note that both of them together have destroyed any hope of democracy. We are now an oligarchic society and there doesn’t seem to be any way of changing that fact. With truth for sale, you can’t persuade people to use the ballot box to replace corporate America’s lackeys that run the Congress with the kind of men and women who might actually do something about inequity.

You know what I’d like to see? I’d like to see us mark the day the scales first fell from our eyes, the first time we came to see how much we are battered by bullshit. Like birthdays and anniversaries. And the first time you have sex. Perhaps it’s generational. In my day, ROTC was a college requirement at Middlebury, where I went as an undergraduate. Remember ROTC? The Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, designed to develop officers for the military. In the class on military history the lieutenant teaching the course went on one day about something that had happened in the Mexican-American War when a student who had been raised in Cuba stood up and contradicted him. How rude, I thought. I had yet to learn that history was largely comprised of Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, to cite the book title of a book by James W. Loewen that I came to read years later. After college, when I entered the army and worked with the Army Security Agency, I had a chance to note first hand that the “truth” I was exposed to, not only from a variety of national sources but from first-hand experience as well, often contradicted the “truth” I’d read in the American press. Still later, I discovered Howard Zinn, and things never looked the same again.

When Oliver Stone’s movie on the assassination of JFK came out in 1991 it immediately started a world-wide debate which is actually still going on over whether Stone got the facts right or whether his film is fictionalized history. Whether conspiracy theories are your thing is not what I’m trying to get at, however. What I’m more interested in getting at is whether this willingless to subject ourselves to a liar like Donald Trump is furthered by our willingness to find fictionalized history perfectly acceptable. It certainly seems to be, and almost anything can be justified as long as it’s entertaining. What’s a little massaging of facts as long as a little popcorn and ninety minutes of fun at the moving picture show takes our mind off the dreary and the depressing. I just want to have fun!

My nightly Netflix/Amazon Prime entertainment last night was a 2016 film called The Exception. It stars Christopher Plummer, and I have to tell you I think it’s probably his best role ever – and I’m including Sound of Music here. Plummer plays Kaiser Wilhelm II in retirement in Holland just as Hitler invades and decides to lay claim to him before he, Wilhelm, can cast a shadow on Hitler’s place in the sun.
actual historical Willi

I put the movie in my queue because I have a fascination with Prussia and the Hohenzollerns. I love the arrogance of Kaiser Willi, changing his military uniform five times a day and parading around with a bird on his head, oblivious to how silly that was bound to make him look in the course of time. 

I raise the question of truth vs. entertainment because it plays a major role in The Exception. King Willi doesn’t merely get white-washed. He actually gets to play the good German, the one who saves the Jewish girl from Himmler. I guess if you’re going to toy with historical fact, you might as well go all in. It’s a preposterous fiction. Willi, from all reports, was a colossal bore. Plummer turns him into a hero.

We owe no special loyalty to this historical figure. In fact, if you dig through early 20th Century history (and way before, actually) for the beginnings of modern Germany, it's pretty clear Hitler didn't invent anti-semitism, but built on what was already there - in case you missed that in history class. Willi's biographer John Röhl even suggests Willi thought the way to get rid of the Jews might be to gas them. And Willi loved being “emperor,” loved the idea of going to war, didn’t appear to care much what happened to the little guy, and stands in contrast with his charming and more gentlemanly grandfather, Kaiser Wilhelm I, as the guy under whose reign the Prussian monarchy gave way to the Weimar Republic. 

No matter. Somebody decided it’s time for some happy history. You’ve got your Hitler (snarl, snarl), your Himmler (Satan personified), your affable old Kaiser living out his life in Holland, entertaining himself by feeding the ducks and chopping down trees for firewood and yearning for the restoration of his throne. Alongside Willi is his second wife Hermine, who, unlike her outspoken husband who thinks Hitler is basically an ass, is willing to kiss ass, even bribing Himmler – anything to be able to return as queen to Berlin.

It’s not in the cards. Himmler promises Willi he will bring him back, but that’s a deception. His reason for the lie is to encourage all the anti-Hitler nobility to expose themselves, so they can be eliminated.

full frontal good nazi
Brandt, sent to spy on the Kaiser
Along with Plummer as Willi and Janet McTeer as Willi’s wife, Princess Hermine Reuss of Greiz, both of whom really steal every scene they are in, are the two “main” characters, Captain Stefan Brandt, played by Australian Superhunk Jai Courtney, and the Dutch maid, Mieke, played by Lily James of Downton Abbey fame. So what you have here is a very strange fictional tale of the last days of the exiled Kaiser Wilhelm II played by a cast of first-rate actors. Brandt was part of Hitler’s invasion of Poland, where he saw brutality up close and was freaked out by it. Wounded, he was then assigned the supposedly humiliating task of heading up the Kaiser’s guards - and checking up on the Kaiser while he's at it. No sooner does he arrive in Holland than he meets maid Mieke, commands her to undress (completely) and has his way with her. No problem, it turns out. The next day, she marches in and commands him to return the full frontal favor and mounts him on the bed, making this whole spectacle some kind of semi-porn event.

Actually, it’s a romance, but this is 2017, so the sex has to be big and bold. And in the end, you actually find yourself rooting for a Nazi soldier and his impossibly unlikely Jewish girlfriend, who, when discovered as an enemy agent, gets bailed out with the aid of the Kaiser.

History as you like it. Not politically correct, exactly, but rewritten to show there were soldiers in Hitler’s army that were sexy as hell, kindly as hell, capable of being a Mensch, and if not throwing a wooden shoe in the gears of the Nazi war machine, exactly, at least slowing it down by making love, not war.

Janet McTeer as Kaiserin Hermine, Lily James as Mieke
with Plummer, the Kaiser
So what do you think? Is this fictional history a lie? It’s good entertainment – good acting, humor, tension, surprise, hot sex – but is it a lie? Can you make up historical fact? If so, can you stay below the threshhold where any harm appears to be done? Is this the equivalent of a white lie, this manipulation of historical fact? Or does it just soften us up to more serious things such as the genocide of the American Indian, the claim that the Civil War was fought for States’ Rights and not for the elimination of slavery?  That the Taliban hate us because we’re free, Ho Chi Minh was not fighting to free his country from French colonialism but because he was a dirty commie, that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction that had to be taken out, and that the mess in the Middle East that followed from the Iraq war was due to the fact that Islam never underwent a period of enlightenment and is therefore a religion of war and oppression?

I’d like to think I'm blowing things all out of proportion, that we can actually play with historical fact and not be hurt by it.

But I had to ask.

And if you find yourself aching for the good old days when the Willis were on the throne, you're not alone.

Photo credits:

Plummer as Willi: 
Actual Willi as Willi with bird on head:,_German_Emperor 
full frontal nazi:
Brandt in uniform: 
McTeer, James, Plummer: 


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