The historical events referenced in Volker Schlondorff's 2014 film Diplomacy (based on the stage play by Cyril Gely) are real but the details have largely been fudged, imagined, or fictionalized. To quote Mark Twain, "Never let the truth get in the way of a good story." The veracity of Diplomacy matters little, however. This isn't a history lesson. It isn't intended to reveal new facts where previously there was only uncertainty. Schlondorff's goal is to focus on the moves and countermoves in the high-stakes negotiation upon which the fate of a city hangs.
It's late August 1944 and the Allies are closing in on Paris. The German defense is crumbling with most of the troops retreating to defend the Fatherland. Left behind is the military governor of Paris, General Dietrich von Choltitz (Niels Arestrup), who has orders from Hitler to destroy the city rather than let it be retaken. It's a scorched Earth policy of the most vindictive kind: not only would a million civilians perish but iconic buildings would be destroyed and priceless artwork lost. In the end, von Choltitz elects not to give the order to blow up the bridges crossing the Seine or dynamite the Eiffel Tower or The Louvre. The reasons are murky but Diplomacy postulates it might have something to do with conversations between von Choltitz and Swedish diplomat Raoul Nordling (Andre Dussollier), who paid him several visits during the last days.
Diplomacy recounts a session between the two occurring the night before the destruction is planned. The point of the movie is less whether Paris is saved (we know it is) but how the diplomatic process unfolds to make the outcome possible. The two adversaries, von Choltitz and Nordling, are at opposite positions at the outset with the former determined to "do [his] duty" and the latter willing to say or do almost anything to prevent it. Prussian pragmatism comes up against a web of words - some true, some not. Nordling's basic argument is that not only would the destruction of Paris be a war crime of the highest order but it would stain Germany's standing in the world forever. Von Choltitz rebuts that he is a soldier and he has been given an order. When Nordling presses this on him, he offers a more human reason for which the diplomat has no answer.
Through guile and cunning, Nordling wins the battle. His tactics provide insight into the way diplomacy works. It's not just a matter of compromise; it's a matter of getting the upper hand by any means necessary - outright falsehoods when a mere stretching of the truth isn't good enough - then pressing it home. Diplomatic wars may be bloodless but they can leave scars. Nordling never intends to make good on promises provided to von Choltitz. However, his victory may not be as difficult as it at first seems; there's a sense that von Choltitz may be the diplomat's greatest ally. He's looking for a reason to defy The Fuhrer and speaks of the madness that has come upon Hitler.
Schlondorff, who began his directing career in West Germany during the early 1960s, is better known in Europe than in the United States. In this hemisphere, he is recognized for two projects: 1979's The Tin Drum, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and the celebrated 1985 TV adaptation of Death of a Salesman with Dustin Hoffman. His style is simple and spare, using frequent close-ups. The glimpses we see of nighttime Paris through an open window are more effective than the stark archival footage used late in the movie to advance the storyline.
This is essentially a two-man play with most of the action transpiring in a room in the Hotel Meurice, where the Germans have established their command post. The performances by Niels Arestrup and Andre Dussollier are strong and they play well off one another.
The movie betrays its low budget by using war footage to depict the arrival of the Allies and the black-and-white images contrast with the rest of the film's color. (The 1966 feature, Is Paris Burning, which tells the same story from a less intimate perspective, is in black-and-white partially to allow the seamless integration of such footage.) The musical score, credited to Jorg Lemberg, is either poorly composed or misused. There are times when it undercuts the quiet drama of scenes that might have been better off with no music whatsoever.
Diplomacy will work for those who appreciate dialogue-based character films in which plot is of secondary importance. This is a showcase for acting. It's an unusual war film and, even if the specific incidents chronicled didn't happen as shown, it's worth remembering that the overarching events are real and the ending, if different, could have resulted in a much different world than the one in which we currently reside.
© 2014 James Berardinelli