A Gem Worth Saving, by Sarah Brinks
From time to time there is a film I review for Battleship Pretension that I like so much that it really takes me by surprise. I have nicknamed them “BP Gems” in my mind. Diplomatie (Diplomacy in English) is one of those surprising gems. Diplomatie, from start to finish, was engaging and beautiful.
Diplomatie was adapted from a Cyril Gety play of the same title. It is about the final day – final morning really – of the German occupancy of Paris during World War II. The German General Dietrich von Choltitz, played by Niels Arestrup, was the Governor of Paris and was ordered by Hitler to blow up Paris before it was liberated by the allied forces. The film begins at four in the morning as General Choltitz is reviewing the plans with a French engineer about how the destruction of Paris will happen. Behind a two-way mirror over the fireplace they are being watched by an old man who we find out is a Swedish diplomat named Raoul Nordling, played by André Dussollier. Once the General is alone Nordling comes into the room through a hidden passage built by Napoleon to visit his mistress and surprises Choltitz. Nordling pleads with Choltitz to not destroy Paris using a variety of tactics and motivators.
I would say ninety percent of Diplomatie is the conversation between Choltitz and Nordling (my guess is the play is a two man show). Both Arestrup and Dussollier give impressive performances in the film. Arestrup has the meatier and bilingual role as Choltitz but Dussollier has the challenge of playing the silver-tongued diplomat attempting to not only save a beautiful and important city but also the lives of millions of innocent citizens. Their conversation is in French but Choltitz transitions from German to French and back again flawlessly. The two old men have a real gravitas to their characters and their polite but conflicted relationship plays out on screen beautifully. Choltitz has more of an emotional arch then Norlding. In the beginning he seems like a dyed-in-the-wool Nazi, blindly obeying orders no matter what. He barely blinks an eye at the prospect of blowing up the beautiful city that surrounds him. After much discussion with Nordling he reveals that his family has been threaten by Hitler himself and that if he fails to follow his orders they will surely be killed. Nordling as a Swedish citizen who grew up in Paris who is married to a Jew has a lot of layers to play as he argues for the fate of his home.
Anyone with the most basic knowledge of World War II knows the ultimate outcome of the film but Diplomatie manages to maintain the tension of Choltitz’ decision right up until the very end. They layer in each characters motivations throughout the film so by the end you are deeply sympathetic to both characters, even though one is a Nazi. The question is asked of Nordling what he would do in Choltitz’s shoes and he doesn’t have a good answer because it is an almost impossible choice to make. How do you weigh the lives of your family versus a city full of strangers? It is impossible to know how much of the conversation depicted in the film is historically accurate. The fact remains that Paris still stands and that Choltitz was given a medal by Nordling in 1955 for saving Paris and is considered by some the “Savior of Paris”.
I have to give a lot of credit to director Volker Schlöndorff for keeping the film from feeling static or stagey. I did suspect it was originally a play but that was mostly due to the fact that it was such a dialogue-heavy film between two characters. Diplomatie is beautifully shot by cinematographer Michel Amathieu. The film transitions from very early morning to daytime in a believable way without being in real time, and the lighting designer was very subtle with the effects. There is also a nice blend of historical footage that helps to add depth to the film.
I really liked this film. It is short, but full of drama. The acting is really superb, the film looks beautiful, and dialogue is compelling. I am a bit of history nerd so the historical aspects of the film were right up my alley. It was particularly interesting hearing about Hitler from the Nazi’s perspective, I don’t know how historically accurate it all is but it felt believable. I can recommend this film to anyone. Diplomatie has been making the international festival circuit but if you can get your hands on a copy you will really enjoy it.