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“Is Paris burning?” was the famous question Adolf Hitler allegedly asked General Dietrich von Cholitz as the Allied forces reached the city’s borders on the morning of August 25th, 1944. While we all know that von Cholitz and his retreating German army didn’t in fact, burn Paris to the ground, the machinations behind that fateful decision make for highly engaging drama in Diplomacy (Diplomatie), Volker Schlondorff’s adaptation of the hit play by French dramaturge Cyril Gely.
Starring Niels Arestrup (A Prophet, You Will Be My Son) as the tough-minded Teuton officer who will decide whether the City of Lights goes up in flames, and Andre Dussollier (Life of Riley, Wild Grass) as the Swedish consul whose clever, humanistic reasoning may save the day, this terrifically performed piece of filmed theater is filled with twists, turns and underhanded schemes that show how history sometimes lies in the hands of a selected few, not to mention a good glass of Chardonnay.
After premiering in Berlin’s Special Gala section — and revealing itself to be a much better version of the similarly-themed The Monuments Men — Diplomacy rolls out in France early March, where it should attract decent crowds in theatres and on TV. Overseas pickups will consist of high-end distributors, especially those catering to older audiences.
An opening montage of WWII archive footage, set to the brooding second movement of Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 7,” features shots of bombed-out German cities towards the end of the war. This fury of mass destruction very much remains in one’s mind throughout the rest of the film, setting the stakes extremely high for an intensive tete-a-tete involving two key players who would determine Paris’ ultimate fate.
Serving as Governor for the occupying German army, von Cholitz (Arestrup) rules over his forces from the elegant Hotel Meurice on the Rue de Rivoli. With a balcony looking out to the Tuileries Garden, the Seine and many other premiere sites, it’s the perfect spot to witness the city blown to high hell, which is the plan ordered up by the Fuhrer himself and, if all goes well, about to be undertaken by von Cholitz’s troops.
But a major monkey wrench is tossed into the machinery when Swedish consul Raoul Nordling (Dussollier) shows up unannounced, and slowly but surely works his way into the German’s heart and mind, using every tool within his power — including a fair amount of wine and camembert — to convince the Governor to call off the blitz.
Gely’s play was a critical and public success when it was presented in 2011, in a version directed by Stephan Meldegg and starring the same duo of Dussollier and Arestrup. And it’s clear the moment the two actors first meet on screen that they’ve lived these roles for a long time, taking immense pleasure in portraying Diplomacy’s constantly evolving game of cat and mouse — or Fritz and frog (albeit a Swedish frog) — where the odds keep shifting as new information surfaces.
Indeed, while it’s easy in the film’s first half to sympathize with Nordling’s struggle to save the city and perhaps millions of lives, the balance gradually tips to focus on the horrible predicament in which von Cholitz finds himself, caught between the suicidal tactics of Hitler and his own waning sense of duty. Their relationship very much recalls that of Erich von Stroheim and Marcel Dalio in Jean Renoir’s WWI drama Grand Illusion, revealing how men on opposite sides of the firing line can come together for reasons of culture, class and a common desire to do what’s honorable.
Dussollier is exceptional as a sly diplomat whose charms are more powerful than any Allied tank, and his many anecdotes about local history — including the fact that the Governor’s office once served as Napoleon III’s garçonnière — go a long way in making the city’s destruction seem like the ultimate crime.
But it’s Arestrup who really steals the show, turning von Cholitz into a man who bears the weight of several thousand soldiers, not to mention an entire civilian population, and who suffers under that burden until making a final, eleventh hour decision that will mark Paris’ future for decades to come.
While this is not the first foray into French-language filmmaking for the German-born Schlondorff, it’s nonetheless impressive to see how well he handles all the Gallic repartee, allowing his two stars to engage in one thrilling verbal duel after another. And although this is certainly a more contained (and significantly shorter) work than his 1979 Oscar-winning epic The Tin Drum, Diplomacy nonetheless tackles similar themes of resistance and refinement as the war wages on just outside.
Keeping the action mostly confined to von Cholitz’s elegant office, the director and cinematographer Michel Amathieu (No and I) take great pains to reveal the city’s beauty as it lingers in the background, until a final, stunningly shot sequence underscores how much lovers of Paris owe to these two monumental men.
Production companies: Film Oblige, Gaumont, Blueprint Film
Cast: Andre Dussollier, Niels Arestrup, Burghart Klaussner, Robert Stadlober, Charlie Nelson
Director: Volker Schlondorff
Screenwriters: Cyril Gely, Volker Schlondorff, based on the play by Cyril Gely
Producers: Marc de Bayser, Frank Le Wita, Sidonie Dumas, Francis Boespflug
Director of photography: Michel Amathieu
Production designer: Jacques Rouxel
Costume designer: Mirjam Muschel
Editor: Virginie Bruant
Music: Jorg Lemberg
Sales agent: Gaumont
No rating, 83 minutes
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