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Debating love and war in the world's most romantic city
Niels Arestrup and André Dussollier play leading roles in this psychological drama about wartime ethics
Director Volker Schlöndorff is perhaps best known for his film The Tin Drum, adapted from Günter Grass's play of the same name. Diplomacy is Schlöndorff's adaptation of the successful stage play by Cyril Gély. The events take place during the course of one morning towards the end of the second World War, in Paris. The first impression is that this is a historical drama, and we expect the story to be close to factual reality. It is August 1944, and the Allies are closing in. General Dietrich Von Choltitz has been in Paris for just two weeks, having been assigned the task of reducing the city to rubble and effectively killing half its population before the Allies arrive. Hitler apparently loves Paris, particularly the Opéra, and that is precisely why he wants it destroyed: it is the vengeful act of a madman who knows he has no hope of winning this war.
The setting of this film is a baroque apartment at the Hôtel Meurice, former boudoir of Napoleon III's mistress and now the headquarters of the German occupying force. It seems Hitler's orders are about to be carried out, when Choltitz is surprised by the sudden and magical appearance of the enigmatic Swedish consul, Raoul Nordling. Nordling is about to use all his powers of diplomacy to persuade the General to disobey the Fuhrer's orders.
The story of what really happened is related by Choltitz himself in the memoir he wrote after the war, Is Paris Burning. This memoir inspired an earlier film on this theme by René Clément, also named Is Paris Burning, starring Orson Welles and Gert Fröbe. Choltitz writes in his memoir that although he had several meetings with Nordling, he needed no persuasion, and decided himself that Hitler's order was madness. However this film, true to the stage drama, does not pretend to be historically accurate. It presents the agony of the General's final decision as a perfectly crafted game of chess between two almost opposite characters: the soldier's blunt code of ethics is challenged by the diplomat's appeal to reason and humanity. Nordling is seemingly unaware that Choltitz has a far more compelling reason for carrying out this devastating operation, but when he discovers this reason we become conscious of both the General's vulnerability and Nordling's ruthless side.
André Dussollier brilliantly portrays Raoul Nordling as an elegant aesthete, entreating the General to view Paris like a lover as she blushes in the dawn of a new day. He appears to be deeply concerned for Choltitz's welfare, while we know he is at the same time conniving with the Resistance. Niels Arestrup shows us the human side of General von Choltitz, a man who has previously razed Rotterdam and Sevastopol to the ground, giving orders for the entire Jewish population of that city to be liquidated. Despite his gruff demeanour this man is an aristocrat who appreciates the refinements of Paris, in contrast with the uncouth envoys from Himmler who have orders to loot the city's art treasures before the explosions begin. His devotion to his young family is paradoxically his primary motive for ordering the destruction of Paris.
The other characters in the film are quite minor roles, but essential to the story. The original footage from the Allied Invasion helps to remind us that although this isn't quite how it happened, the events were real enough. The shots of Paris viewed from the window of the hotel evoke a silent, sleeping city, blissfully unaware of the desperate debate that will finally decide its fate on the morning of August 25, 1944.
This film is a refreshing change from the shocking, emotionally charged war movies that we are so used to seeing. It asks us to reflect on the way so many major wartime decisions depend on the character and ethics of individuals, and demonstrates that 'jaw-jaw' always has to be the most effective strategy at times of crisis.