General Von Choltitz: You die only once
Consul Raoul Nordling: But you remain dead for a long time.
Diplomatie aka Diplomacy (in English) screened at the CineArts Sequoia 1 Theater on Throckmorton Avenue in Mill Valley. This was Day Three of the Mill Valley Film Festival.
The film begins on a particular August night in 1944.
THe Germans had occupied Paris for some time, but the French Resistance, as well as the Allied Forces, now a mere two hours outside of Paris and were advancing quickly, had weakened them. The German garrison had possibly 2000 remaining soldiers, and the headquarters staff, housed in the Hotel Meurice, numbered no more than 20 men.
Orders, from the German High Command, meaning Hitler himself, had arrived a while back, They were stark, and blunt and horrific. Since the Allies had bombed Berlin, Hamburg, and Mannheim into rubble, Hitler’s dream, of making Berlin as beautiful as Paris was no longer possible. Hence, if Paris could not be defended by the German Wehrmacht, then it had to be razed, blown up as it were. Leveled. As part of a last gasp effort, and as act of pure malice.
Adapted by Cyril Gely from his own theatrical production, The film is mostly a two character dialogue, there are plenty of other speaking roles but they are strictly supporting as well as brief and intermittently spaced out.
On the one hand, we have the German Governor of Occupied Paris, one General von Choltitz played by Niels Arestrup who performed beautifully in both War Horse and Sarah’s Key. On the other hand, we have the Swedish Consul, a Raoul Nordling. He’s played by Andre Dussollier, who starred in Amelie years ago.
These days Dussollier will remind of Mission Impossible’s Peter Graves who died back in 2010.
While the Germans readied their preparations with explosives planted in The Louvre, the Paris Opera House, the four bases of the Eiffel Tower, the Cathedral of Notre Dame, and at the various bridges, the city would be leveled. Not just by the explosions but by the collapse of bridges and Walls of the Seine river causing massive flooding in the heart of the city.
General von Choltitz was a career officer. He was gray-haired and portly looking to be in his early 60’s. As portrayed by Arestrup, we do not see him as a monster or even evil. He was following orders. But beyond that, the German High Command had issued a law for its military leaders. Failure to follow the orders would result in the arrest, incarceration, and execution of your family. So Choltitz was, in a more modern vernacular – between a rock and a hard place. No way out.
Suddenly appearing in von Choltitz’s suite (from a secret entrance hidden in a bookcase) we meet Raoul Nordling played by the wonderful Andre Dussollier.
So the diplomat and general begin a discussion. The General is dismissive, almost rude. As a career officer, he’d had no problem in executing terrorist (aka French resistance fighters), He’d also left scorched earth behind him Sevastopol.
When Nordling complained and questioned von Choltitz about the destruction of a beautiful city and the deaths of thousands in the aftermath, the General asked him – where were complaints when the enemy bombers dropped 10,000 tons on Hamburg?
Back and forth the discussion and dialogue went. While this is a film that centers on the performance of two actors rather than action – the beauty of the film is not simply in the grand and impassioned speeches by Nordling, or the cold and sometimes cruel logic proffered by von Choltitz. Instead what I remember best is the staging – sit at the desk, walk to the balcony, receive calls, order aides and assistants into the room. The pacing about, the sitting down, the changes in camera angles and perspectives. From closeups to two-shots, the film was simply terrifically staged.
Directed by Volker Schlondorff and edited by Virginie Bruant – the film is easy to watch and easy to admire. What happens is a mental chess match between just two men = one clinging to his orders, and the other impassioned in his efforts to save a grand city.
The result is a powerful drama, one which has great impact. We can only watch in awe as two master actors give us their best. Not being a German or French speaker, I cannot comment on Arestrup’s German. But we already have seen him in films speaking English and Danish as well as Francaise and now German.
As for historical accuracy, I’ll leave that to historians to mull over. The events took place seventy years ago, but when we watch this film, we don’t need to consider the accuracy. This is a piece of drama, not a documentary. I am not sure if Hitler actually called von Choltitz and asked Is Paris burning or if that was a creation of someone.
Either way, the history is that Paris was not razed or leveled. The Germans did not leave the city in smoldering ruins. Rather, von Choltitz surrendered to the Allied Commander.
My rating is four point five out of five, Mesmerizing performances don’t come everyday, so if you get a chance, or an opportunity to see this film, make sure you do.
Below is the English subtitled trailer: