‘Diplomacy’: WW II brinksmanship

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As World War II heads towards its conclusion in the European theater, “Diplomacy” unfolds. Set during a single August evening in late August of 1944, the film revolves around two real-life characters, German General Dietrich von Choltitz (Niels Arestrup) and Swedish consul, Raoul Nordling (André Dussollier).

In 1940, Germany had seemed invincible. Mobilized German units crossed the Ardenes Forest and the Somme Valley, areas familiar to veterans of World War I. They surrounded Allied forces in France and drove them into the sea. The evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from the beaches of Dunkirk marked the nadir of the Allied fortunes during the war.

Following the Armistice, Adolph Hitler made a triumphant visit to the fallen city. With his favorite architect, Albert Speer in tow, the Fuhrer marveled at Paris’ renowned landmarks. He vowed that one day Berlin would supplant Paris as Europe’s leading city. During the film, General Choltitz ruefully reflects that Paris had once been the most welcome posting in the entire Third Reich.

Following the entry of the United States into the war and the successful D-Day landing of Allied troops in Normandy, the tide of battle turned. Two armored American divisions are rushing towards Paris, poised to liberate the city. Facing a seemingly inevitable outcome, Hitler decides to vindictively destroy the city.

The interposition of documentary footage depicts Hitler’s senseless destruction of Poland’s capital, Warsaw. Now, it appears that Paris will succumb to the same fate.

General Choltitz is a career military man, whose father and grandfather before him were officers. On August 1, 1944, he was dispatched to Paris and then appointed as its Wermacht commander and governor. Adolph Hitler personally assigns General Choltitz to totally destroy the City of Lights.

General Choltitz is headquartered inside a deluxe suite within the Hotel Meurice on the Rue de Rivoli. It’s 4 A.M., but General Choltitz is wide awake, making last-minute preparations to execute Hitler’s orders.

To carry out this agenda, General Choltitz has ordered explosives to be placed at 33 bridges. Their coordinated detonation will trigger the Seine River to overflow its banks. This will drown the populace of Paris. Then, a second set of explosions will reduce to rubble all of the city’s historic buildings; including the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, the Cathedral of Notre Dame, and the Place de la Concorde.

Nordling also bears a family legacy.  Nordling’s late father established a thriving paper past factory and had served as consul general to his native Sweden. Nordling himself was born in Paris and spent virtually all of his life there. He succeeded his father as head of the family business and consul general. Though Sweden is officially neutral, Nordling becomes alarmed, when he learns that his beloved Paris might be razed.

To evade the guards posted outside General Choltitz’s room, Nordling ascends a secret passageway that leads to it. As war is ferociously waged in the background, the two refined men are surrounded by gilded antiques, crystal glassware, and fine china. They engage in a contentious dialogue. The outcome of their debate will determine the fate of Paris. Can Nordling persuade General Choltitz to disobey his orders?

The events depicted in this film previously formed the narrative spine of the 1966 film, “Is Paris Burning?,” directed by  Renée Clément. Gore Vidal and a young Francis Ford Coppola adapted the book by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre. The sprawling film featured an ensemble cast, which included Gert Fröbe (the eponymous villain in the Bond flick, “Goldfinger”) as General Choltitz and Orson Welles as Nordling.

Director, Volker Schlöndorff, came of age as part of the New German Cinema movement of that straddled the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. His colleagues included Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog, and Rainer Fassbinder. Nobel Prize-winning author, Günter Grass, had repeatedly spurned the overtures of filmmakers, who wanted to adapt his acclaimed novel, “The Tin Drum.” However, he authorized Schlöndorff’s efforts to turn the work into a screen vehicle. The critically-acclaimed work won the 1979 Oscar for Best Foreign Film and the Palme d’or at Cannes.

Schlöndorff co-wrote the adapted screenplay for “Diplomacy” with Cyril Gely, the playwright of the successful stage play of the same name. They adroitly open up the stage work to take advantage of the cinematic possibilities. However, in contrast to the action-packed “Is Paris Burning,” this film is largely a dialogue-driven pas de deux. Though German, Schlöndorff’s affection towards Paris seems evident. This may be informed by his years working there as an assistant to French helmsmen, Alain Resnais, Jean-Pierre Melville. and Louis Malle.

A screen capture from a scene from the trailer to the movie "Diplomacy" at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rO6jcH5khvE

A screen capture from a scene from the trailer to the movie “Diplomacy” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rO6jcH5khvE

Arestrup and Dussollier are widely regarded as two of France’s finest actors. They reprise the roles that they originated for the stage version. As co-protagonists, both of them are superb. Their interchanges prove to be conduits of carefully considered arguments.

The film is peppered with historical references. Some are factually-based, such as the aborted conspiracy by members of Hitler’s inner circle to assassinate him and General Choltitz’s role in the extermination  of Russian Jews in Sevastopol. Some of the details about Elizabeth Haryett,  Napoleon II’s mistress, are apocryphal, albeit deliciously imagined. To expedite the narrative, the timeline of the multiple meetings between the general and the diplomat, that took place in real life, are compressed into a single night. General Choltitz’s motivations in sparing Paris remain a matter of dispute by historians.

Cinematographer, Mathieu Amathieu; production designer, Jacques Rouxel; costume designer, Mirjam Muschel; and editor, Virginie Bruant; collaborate on a beautiful visual text. The evocative soundtrack by Jorg Lemberg is augmented by Beethoven’s seventh symphony and a rendition of “J’ai deux amours” Madeline Peyroux.

The outcome of the film is a foregone conclusion. Nevertheless, “Diplomacy” is infused with plenty of dramatic tension. It offers a suspenseful study on the pivotal role of brinksmanship in averting a disaster.

“Diplomacy” *** 1/2 No MPAA rating 83 minutes

Film critic Nathan Lerner sees more than 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.




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