A tense battle of wills between a Nazi general and a Swedish
diplomat over the fate of Paris in the waning days of World War II gives
director Volker Schlondorff the premise for a compelling historical drama in
“Diplomacy,” which benefits greatly from the razor-sharp, theater-honed skills
of two formidable French actors, Niels Arestrup and André Dussollier, who
created the roles on stage.
The characters they play, General Dietrich von Choltitz
(Arestrup) and Consul Raoul Nordling (Dussollier), are real figures. It
deserves noting, though, that the long overnight encounter between the two men
we see in the film never happened. A somewhat more accurate account of their
interaction can be found in the 1966 movie “Is Paris Burning?”, directed by
René Clément and scripted by Gore Vidal and Francis Ford Coppola from the
bestseller by Larry Collins and Dominque Lapierre. There, Nordling (played by
Orson Welles) negotiates with von Choltitz (Gert Frobe) regarding the French
Resistance, not the destruction of Paris, days before the climactic night of
August 24-25, 1944.
The conceit of Cyril Gely’s play (adapted by him and
Schlondorff), which brings the men together on that night, is certainly
defensible in that it gives a tight human focus to a decision that could have
resulted in an unimaginable mass horror.
Indeed, the prospect of that event looms over the film’s
drama, giving it great emotional punch even though we know the story’s outcome.
Unlike most movies, where the horror arrives climactically, here it comes in
the opening minutes, when von Choltitz and his staff coldly go over their plan
for the imminent destruction of the French capital.
Hearing this can still give a viewer chills. Every bridge in
Paris (except the Pont Neuf) has been loaded with explosives. When these go
off, the Seine will burst its banks and the whole southeastern quadrant of the
city will be flooded. Then other detonations will destroy most of Paris’ great
monuments: Notre Dame, the Louvre, the Opera, the Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel
Tower. Fire and floods will kill countless people, and the approaching Allies
will find smoldering ruins where Paris once stood.
Von Choltitz has been personally assigned this action by
Hitler, who is enraged that Berlin is in flames while earth’s most beautiful
city survives unscathed. As “Diplomacy” opens, the General is in his quarters
in the Hotel Meurice, on the Rue de Rivoli, when Nordling suddenly appears. The
Swede explains that the room has a secret entrance that Napoleon III once used
to visit a favorite mistress. This odd proof of his own personal vulnerability
only slightly unnerves von Choltitz, who orders the entrance investigated while
he deals with the diplomat.
Nordling has a letter from a French general about arranging
for the Germans’ peaceable surrender of the city. Von Choltitz tears it up
without opening it. His father and grandfather were soldiers, he has destroyed
several other cities and liquidated the Jewish populations of some, and he’s
fiercely loyal to the Nazi cause. There’s nothing that will keep him from
following Hitler’s barbaric orders.
The elaborate colloquy that follows hinges more on
personalities and occupations than ideologies. Von Choltitz is the consummate
military man, erect, disciplined and obedient to the hierarchy that contains
him. Yet he also seems an intelligent and somewhat cultured man, not immune to
arguments about the beauty and importance of Paris. For his part, Nordling is tactful
and discerning, firm when it will benefit him yet also yielding when it’s
strategically advantageous. He appeals first to the General’s pity and sense of
When this doesn’t get him far, he says then don’t spare the
city for the French, do it for your own grandchildren, so that their relations
with the world aren’t poisoned for generations to come. Both men know the war
will be over soon and nothing of its outcome would be changed by Paris’
destruction, so both see reasons to look to the future and try to lessen the
calamities that lie between now and an armistice.
It’s a good argument, but von Choltitz has a devastating
comeback. Just recently, he says, Hitler has issued a decree that he thinks may
be primarily aimed at him. It orders that the families of any soldier who
disobeys orders can be punished for their crimes. Thus he fears that if he
doesn’t proceed with the city’s destruction, his wife and three children will
be arrested and executed. “What would you do if you were in my place?” he asks.
Nordling is stunned into silence.
Essentially a two-hander even though it contains a number of
minor characters, the film proves consistently absorbing thanks in large part
to the adept, expertly calibrated work of its leads. As von Choltitz, Arestrup
exhibits a powerful physical presence while also showing himself vulnerable in
ways both physical (his asthma is an important plot point) and emotional. And
Dussollier’s Nordling suggests the mercurial mental agility of a man who, like
a chess master, is obliged to make quick, complex calculations.