It’s been more than 75 years since America entered World War II, and the world is still trying to untangle how Germany decided that genocide was morally acceptable. In David Leveaux’s first feature, The Exception, he explores how nationalism can be toxic, but ultimately how humans can overcome it. German Capt. Stefan Bryant (Jai Courtney) is put in charge of rooting out the spy in Kaiser Wilhelm II’s (Christopher Plummer) Netherlands home, but Bryant becomes infatuated with a Dutch Jewish maid, Mieke, (Lily James) while in the Kaiser’s household.
Paste talked with director Leveaux about his new film and what it was like moving from the West End stage to the big screen.
Paste Magazine: What’s The Exception about?
David Leveaux: It is partly about the myths of nation and how that can become something inherently toxic. In the story, there are clearly two different ideas of Germany that are operating. One is the Kaiser’s and the other comes in the form of National Socialism. Both of them are inherently false myths, and one is flatly evil. When you’ve got a rigid, ideological, militaristic world that begs the question[s] “Who are you once the uniform and the trappings of the ideology actually come off? What kind of person are you?”—it’s actually really about the struggle between nature and ideology.
Paste: What drew you to this story originally? When we talk about World War II, we don’t talk about the Kaiser very much.
Leveaux: I just thought the Kaiser faded with the end of the first World War. It wasn’t really until that I got this story that I realized he carried on living and was alive at the time that his former country re-invaded the Netherlands. That was a pocket of history that I didn’t know about and was instantly interested by it. I was drawn to it for that reason and of course, on a simple level: When I was first approached about it, the very idea of Christopher Plummer as the last Kaiser of Germany is something you’d be an idiot to resist. I just said, “Oh, what a fantastic idea,” and then I read Alan Judd’s book. I thought that this is an incredible story living in a very remote, delusional Eden. All of these characters that should have nothing in common, [who,] in fact, in many senses, should hate each other, find a common bond under the pressure of circumstance. That was the emotional core of the film that I really wanted to make.
Paste: At the outset, the characters seem pretty two-dimensional, but as the film goes on, you learn more about who they really are.
Leveaux: That was what we set out to do, to almost go in reverse and unpeel characters as we went. I was also interested in the fact that the story involves characters who are often strangers just to themselves and to their own motives, then discover something about themselves that they didn’t know at the outset. When Chris [Plummer] and I spoke about this while we were developing the film, it was very clear that we both wanted to create a dimensional character in the Kaiser and not just a solemn one-note historical cipher. And because Chris is such a great actor, I just knew that was going to possible with him to play the complete foolishness of the man and that he would not be afraid to play the hubris, the bigotry, the knee-jerk reflexive anti-Semitism that the man had…all of that could be upfront, but yet you could see a man actually kind of being reduced to a moment of flickering human grace and that takes a great actor to do that, and I was very excited by that.
Paste: At a dinner scene toward the end of the film, Heinrich Himmler lays out the “Final Solution” to the Kaiser’s bigotry very matter-of-factly.
Leveaux: All the tectonic plates shift in that scene. I mean, it’s the thematic scene. One thing i thought about with that: When people harbor anti-Semitism or any bigotry like that, when confronted by the logical extension of that as he is, as the Kaiser is by Heinrich Himmler, who is industrializing the murder of children, that’s the point when you can sort of see terribly clearly, which I think happens with the Kaiser. He sees something awful, and very suddenly it changes everything. And there he is in that very next moment as if it disgusted him.
Paste: This is your directorial debut in film. Before this, you’ve directed countless Broadway and West End shows. Why did you decide to move to film?
Leveaux: I, like any working theatre director, [have] grown up with film. It’s been a hugely important and influential medium for me. I was always interested in, if I had the chance, making a film. It also came down to needing a story that I felt some kind of personal connection to, [one] I felt that I could contribute to. This to me involved quite a challenging psychology tight-rope to walk with all of the characters. I found that a really compelling challenge. That the camera can be co-conspirator with you, looking into the character and the way that character shifts. I just thought, “Oh yeah, this is not something I’d do as a play. This needed to be a film.” And luckily, someone allowed me do it.
Paste: How was directing on film compared to directing on stage?
Leveaux: With film you’re in the business of bottling lightning. You’re trying to capture a moment and then that moment is gone. Of course, you’re under time pressure. You can’t go back and revisit something. In a sense, part of the challenge of it is landing the right information with the actors in as an economical and compressed way as I could. So nobody was overburdened with emotional information, because what one [actor] was looking for was a moment of incredible spontaneity. On stage, in the rehearsal room, you’re really seeking the ways in which, eventually on a nightly basis, the whole company can create lightning, and that’s a more intermittent thing. It comes and goes. On film, obviously that is your moment.
There were moments… I was working with such wonderful actors. Chris obviously had the theatrical language as well, so we were able to communicate. When I mentioned a certain aspect of King Lear, because he’s played King Lear, he knew what that was, whether it be the foolishness of the man or his hubris or a moment of devastated human exposure. All of those things he had a wonderful shorthand for.
One of the special joys was that everyone loved working with Christopher, especially the younger actors. Their affectionate nickname for him was “One-Take Plummer” because they could never work out how Chris could land something in one take. They were thinking, “Oh no, I’m not ready to go before Take 4.” They were all really extraordinary, because we didn’t have more time to keep shooting. Lily [James] played a very complex character in many ways. I said to her at the outset, “You’re playing someone with a silent heart. It’s one of the hardest things to do. It’s a slow burn of a revelation.” She’s an absolute A-list actress. She nailed that for me.