If Hitler had his way in August 1944, Paris would have burned. During the waning days of the German occupation, the city’s bridges and most precious monuments were targeted for destruction with explosives. Hitler’s orders to General Dietrich von Choltitz, the acting military governor, were clear: leave Paris in rubble. For whatever reason, von Choltitz chose to ignore his führer’s command, instead surrendering a largely intact city on August 25. Volker Schlöndorff’s latest feature film, Diplomacy, is a fictional all-night tête-à-tête between the general (Niels Arestrup) and Swedish diplomat Raoul Nordling (André Dussollier) as they wrestle for the future of the city, and their legacies.
The interactions between the men were previously explored in the 1966 film Is Paris Burning?, directed by René Clément. With Gert Fröbe as von Choltitz and Orson Welles as Nordling, the two were part of a larger ensemble that involved a more expansive plot; but in Diplomacy, the characters bask in their Rosencrantz and Guildenstern moment as Schlöndorff takes liberties with history.
Cyril Gely adapts his own stage play for the screen with Schlöndorff, and French acting veterans Arestrup and Dussollier reprise their stage roles. Diplomacy’s roots on the stage are evident—much of the action is relegated to the general’s quarters in the Hotel Meurice, across from the Tuileries Garden, and near the Louvre. At the film’s denouement, the Eiffel Tower can also be seen in the distance through the open balcony. All these markers serve as reference points for the men (and the audience) as to exactly what’s at stake. While the outcome of Paris’s fate is not surprising, the powerful performances by Dussollier and Arestrup convey the magnitude of this imagined moment. Diplomacy is unexpectedly fraught with emotion and anxiety—without histrionics.
As the film opens, the inevitable German defeat weighs greatly on von Choltitz, as does Hitler’s directive. The stress of his decision wreaks havoc on his health, exacerbating his asthma. The reasons for the general’s indecisiveness are complex, given that he’s a Hitler loyalist, from a long line of proud soldiers and has already been responsible for the execution of many Jews. Von Choltitz has proven that he’s not averse to doing the dirty work, yet he procrastinates pushing the proverbial button. Arestrup’s tired and worn expressions, as well as his carriage about the room, reveal the burden on the general’s shoulders.
Nordling suddenly appears in the hotel suite, startling the general. The consul points out a secret entrance that Napoleon III used for his favorite mistress, and from here, the gamesmanship between the two commences. The men are a study in contrasts—with the dashing, taller Nordling, in a dark, tailored suit, facing off against the general, spruced by his epaulets and medals. The wily career diplomat, played with ease by Dussollier, takes on a charming and almost deferential tone with the general at first, appealing to his sense of right and wrong, then cajoling the soldier with stories of what would be lost in the destruction. The sparring between the two is taut; each gains the upper hand during their debate, only to be countered and raised by his opponent through secrets and revelations.
Schlöndorff, best known for another WWII period drama, The Tin Drum, and cinematographer Michel Amathieu make the most of this limited space, evoking a sense of claustrophobia as the men try and convince and outwit each other. Some viewers may be bothered by the over-staginess of the film, while others may be distracted by the inclusion of historical film footage and action scenes away from the drama at Hotel Meurice. The one immutable point, however, is that Arestrup, Dussollier and Schlöndorff make us all believe in a battle for Paris that never happened.
Director: Volker Schlöndorff
Writer: Schlöndorff and Cyril Gely, based on the play by the latter
Starring: André Dussollier and Niels Arestrup
Release Date: Oct. 15 in New York and Nov. 7 in Los Angeles with a national release to follow
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.