It is difficult to make a suspenseful film based on events about which the ending is already know, but in Diplomatie director Volker Schlöndorff does just that.
The film is based on events of the night of August 25th,1944. Nazi forces, facing the allies inevitable liberation of the city, prepare to destroy her. The General in charge is von Choltitz.
Choltitz is presented as the kind of man who, if it were another time, another place, would be seen as likeable and perhaps honourable. He is seen in the early hours of the morning obviously disturbed, unable to sleep. He has good relations with not only his soldiers, but the French hotel staff were he is staying.
Soon though he is seen discussing the destruction of the city with M. Lanvin, a captured French engineer forced to take part, and high ranking German officers; the landmarks to be destroyed are listed – the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the Place de la Concorde and Notre Dame de Paris.
Interestingly one of the German high ranking officers protests the destruction of the city and compares it to his involvement in the liquidation of the Parisian Jewish population. It is obvious, and worrying, from the officers request to leave the city and avoid watching her demise that this is the step too far. A conversation between the officer and a colleague as the participants of the meeting leave von Choltiz to himself reveals that it is Hitler’s vengeance driving the plan; if Berlin is destroyed the beauty of Paris cannot be left to stand!
This theme, the spiteful plan of a madman, carries throughout the discourse between von Choltitz and the Swedish diplomat named Raoul Nordling. Nordling is glimpsed during the prior meeting behind a fading mirror. He reveals himself in the darkness in a brief loss of electricity. Von Choltitz, shocked by his presence in a secure room, is put at ease by Nordling’s charm. It is clear why the latter is a diplomat.
Nordling divulges how he gained access to the hotel room sequestered by von Choltitiz – a secret passageway created by Napoleon lll to visit his mistress. Nordling allows it to be known also that he is aware of the plan to destroy Paris and continues to persuade von Choltitz to abandon it.
Nordling presents von Choltitz with a letter from a French General coming to liberate Paris with terms of surrender which von Choltitz tears up. Having received a phone all it becomes apparent that Nordling is not working alone and steps have been taken to ensure that his time with von Choltitz is more substantial.
Von Choltitz starts out the discussions presenting himself as a man whose only concern is one of obedience to his orders. However an act of mercy on Nordling’s part, coupled with the arrival of two uncouth, Nazi officers reminding him of the barbaric acts of the regime he has sworn allegiance to, prompts him to divulge the real reason he continues to carry out the orders. Fear for his family’s survival.
The introduction of this brings another layer to the movie that adds the real tension. After all we know Paris survived, it is there to this day. But even though we may know of the events of the drama we do not necessarily know what happened to the players.
As von Choltitiz raises himself to the moral challenge of disobeying orders to save Paris and the souls it protects it is Nordling who is then see to face a moral dilemma in the promises he makes to the former.
The film’s two lead characters are complex and the dialogue between them gripping – I was surprised when it was obvious that it was coming to an end as the plot had captured me so much. For a drama based mainly on the conversation between the two leads this must tell you something about the intensity of the dialogue and the perfectly timed pace of the story.
The leads too inhabit their roles perfectly. Niels Arestrup as von Choltitiz manages to convey his initial inflexibility, his humanity to his young soldiers, his latter doubts in regards to his mission and concern for his family convincingly; seamlessly conveying these changes in a manner that reveals him gradually throughout the film as a multifaceted, likeable human being.
André Dussolier presentation of Nordling demonstrates him as an artist who can act almost completely with his eyes and the well timed pause of a movement to convey charm, morality and his own battle with his conscience over his duplicity towards von Choltitiz.
At the end of the film you are not so much relieved for the safety of Paris, even though this is accompanied by artistic shots of the city, but gripped with fear for von Choltitiz’s family and the plight that is still theirs.
I highly recommend this.