Diplomacy (2014)

Review first published by Sight & Sound, Jan 2015

Synopsis: Paris before dawn, 25th August 1944. With the Allies due in the city centre within hours, General Dietrich von Choltitz prepares to enact Hitler’s orders to level the capital with rigged explosives. The Swedish consul Raoul Nordling enters Choltitz’s suite at the Hôtel Meurice via a secret entrance, and tries to persuade the General to disobey his orders and surrender to the Allies. Against Nordling’s arguments that the order lacks strategic value, that destroying Paris and her civilians would be against the laws of war, that the City of Love is a cultural treasure, and that history – and the French – would never forgive either Choltitz or Germany for such an act, Choltitz cites the principle of duty, the Allies’ phosphorus bombing of Hamburg and his legal right to destroy Paris as an ‘act of war’. When two of Himmler’s SS men turn up and menace Choltitz about the consequences for his family (under ‘Sippenhaft‘) of disobeying orders, Nordling offers safe passage to Switzerland for Choltitz’s wife and children. Choltitz calls off the detonation. About to set off the explosives in defiance of Choltitz’s order, Lieutenant Hegger is shot by French engineer Lanvin. Choltitz surrenders.

Review: Like so many European films, Diplomacy begins with a long list of co-producers. Alongside Gaumont and Arte France Cinéma, we also see Westdeutscher Rundfunk and Südwestrundfunk. This is, after all, a film adapted from a French play (Cyril Gély’s Diplomatie, 2011) by a German director (Volker Schlöndorff, The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum, 1975; The Tin Drum, 1979), in which two French actors reprise their rôles from the original stage production (André Dussollier as Swedish consul Raoul Nordling, Niels Arestrup as General Dietrich von Choltitz) with support from a host of German actors realising the bilingual script. Yet if the film is a paragon of Franco-German collaboration, its content keeps teasing the viewer with an altogether less salubrious counterfactual. For Diplomacy is set on the eve of the Allied liberation of Paris from Nazi Occupation, as Choltitz, then the city’s military governor, had to decide whether to raze the French capital – and its populace – to the ground on the direct orders of a bitter, beleaguered Hitler.

Garrisoned in the opulent Hôtel Meurice, with a perfect view from his balcony of the city that he is minded to annihilate, Choltitz is on the point of passing this order down the chain of command, when Nordling enters his suite via a secret entrance once used by Napoleon III to visit a lover. What follows is itself the deftest of seductions, as Nordling, an experienced ambassador who has already had successful dealings with Choltitz on the freeing of political prisoners, proceeds with great tact to dissuade his host from an extreme scorched earth policy of no real strategic value, and to convince him instead to surrender to the advancing Allied Forces who will reach the city’s centre within hours.

Insubordination and capitulation do not come easily to a long-serving soldier (from a military family), and humanity might not be expected from a man who had previously followed orders to liquidate the entire Jewish population of Sevastapol, yet Nordling, played by Dussollier with a stern-faced gravity that is occasionally lightened by a flash of sly impishness, persists in appealing to Choltitz’s higher values and in accommodating and assuaging his fears. The rest, as they say, is history, with jaw ultimately triumphing over war.

Though essentially a two-hander, the claustrophobia of Diplomacy comes less from its spacious, well-furnished setting than from the sense that Choltitz’s hand is being forced by all manner of external pressures – not least the newly implemented law of Sippenhaft which would see his wife and children punished for his own act of disobedience. The conflict between duty and decency, civilisation and savagery that plagues Choltitz is prefigured in the opening sequence, in which a performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony expressly conducted by that most controversial figure of Nazi-era compromise, Wilhelm Furtwängler, is used to accompany archival footage of the 1944 bombing of Warsaw. That footage represents a hauntingly vivid illustration of just what was at stake, and what might have been Paris’ fate. “By destroying Paris you destroy any future bilateral relationship,” Nordling suggests to Choltitz.

The form, even the very existence, of this Franco-German co-production illustrates just as vividly the benefits of diplomacy over destruction – while a closing-credits acknowledgment of the late Richard Holbrooke (“whose diplomacy ended another war”) situates the film’s themes in an ongoing story.

Anton Bitel