A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Friday, September 16, 2016

Diplomacy (Volker Schlöndorff, 2014)

The enormity of some crimes against humanity so swamps the imagination that it's often more effective to try to comprehend their analogs: crimes against art. The viciousness of ISIS, for example, made itself manifest in the threat to the archaeological treasures of Palmyra. The Taliban received perhaps as much international condemnation for its destruction of the Buddhist statues of Bamiyan as for any of its murderous repression of human beings. And Hitler's threat to destroy the city of Paris rather than let it fall into the hands of the liberating Allies stands as a kind of symbol of the deep-rooted evil that manifested itself in the Holocaust. It inspired the 1966 film Is Paris Burning? (René Clement), which had an all-star international cast, but Volker Schlöndorff's Diplomacy tells the same story more compactly and effectively. It also does it without relying on star-power: Few Americans will be familiar with the work of the two French actors, André Dussollier and Niels Arestrup, who face off in the film. Arestrup plays General von Choltitz, the commander of German troops in Paris who was tasked with carrying out Hitler's orders to obliterate such monuments as Notre Dame, the Louvre, and the Eiffel Tower, and to blow up the bridges on the Seine, damming the river and flooding the crowded low-lying areas of the city. The film opens with Choltitz and his officers reviewing the plans for the city's destruction in his suite at the Hotel Meurice. After the officers leave, there is a blackout caused by the shelling of the power plants by the approaching Allies, and when the lights come up again, Choltitz discovers that he is not alone: The Swedish diplomat Raoul Nordling (Dussollier) has somehow appeared in his room. Nordling, it turns out, has used a secret passage into the hotel that was built for Napoleon III to make clandestine visits to his mistress. He has also witnessed the plans for the obliteration of a city he loves, and has come to persuade Choltitz to defy the Führer. The touch of melodrama in this "theatrical" entrance betrays Diplomacy's origins in a play by Cyril Gely, who collaborated with Schlöndorff on the screenplay. What ensues is a dialogue-heavy debate, somewhat "opened up" with scenes of German soldiers preparing the explosives and battling with the French resistance. The end is, of course, a foregone conclusion: We know Paris survives. But Schlöndorff and his two lead actors manage to create suspense through the give-and-take of their debate, during which we learn that Choltitz's family is under threat of death if he refuses Hitler's orders. Diplomacy suffers only a little from its touches of staginess, thanks to intelligent dialogue and performances.

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