World War II spanned six continents, lasted as many years, and involved roughly 100 million participants. Pardon the quick and dirty history lesson, but an appreciation of scale is needed to understand why people continue to write books and make movies about The Big One nearly seven decades after the fact. The conflict covered so much ground and impacted so many lives that our storytellers may never run out of stories to tell about it. Micro-narratives lurk in the nooks and crannies of combat, adding human depth to a vast pastiche of valor and cruelty, heroism and horror.
Case in point: Diplomacy, the latest offering from German filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff. Lean, tense, and utterly enthralling, the film argues (quite successfully) that some of the greatest battles in the course of the war weren’t waged in the open, but rather behind closed doors between men of honor. When we think of WWII films, we may think of Saving Private Ryan, The Longest Day, and A Bridge Too Far, or titles ranging from Schindler’s List to Downfall. Diplomacy fits more comfortably with the latter selection. It’s a movie that uses military engagement as a backdrop to the politics of madness.
The film’s events took place on the night of August 24th, 1944, when Paris came a hair’s breadth from total annihilation by command of Adolf Hitler. Whether out of necessity or spite (Schlöndorff indicates the latter), the Führer had a series of explosives installed all across France’s capital, intending on turning it to rubble in a single ruinous crescendo. The man in charge of carrying out that final, awful directive was General Dietrich von Choltitz (Niels Arestrup); the man who ultimately persuaded him not to was Swedish diplomat Raoul Nordling (André Dussollier). Diplomacy turns their tete-a-tete into a moral battle of wills where Nordling desperately appeals to Choltitz’s better merits, all while the City of Lights sits on the precipice of destruction.
Schlöndorff dramatizes their negotiations from within the safety of an upscale hotel room, gladiators locked in a posh arena. He’s made a pseudo one-room movie confined within the safety of Choltitz’s opulent digs, save for occasional jaunts through the chaos erupting on the streets outside. But Schlöndorff isn’t as interested in boots on the ground as he is in the minds that put them there. For him, Nordling’s negotiations with Choltitz offer a different window into WWII, one that addresses the ethical conundrum of serving a man whose ideals no longer match with your own. Yes, Choltitz is an officer in the Wehrmacht during the Third Reich. And yes, he’s responsible for eradicating Jewish populaces in neighboring territories. When Nordling initially confronts him, Choltitz laments how his plum Parisian assignment went so sour within weeks of his posting. His feathers seem more ruffled by the hand fate dealt him than by remorse over his inhumane deeds.
But Diplomacy, bit by bit, peels layers off Choltitz and brews sympathy for the person who simply follows orders. Schlöndorff doesn’t go so far as to exonerate him, but he does highlight Choltitz’s admirable principles while articulating how those qualities permit him to commit barbarities and make him susceptible to the whims of barbarians. (Sippenhaft, the kin liability law, is mentioned here in great detail. The film maintains Choltitz’s guilt, but it requests our empathy in turn.) In Arestrup, he finds a leading man capable of breathing humanity into a character we may otherwise peg as a monster; in Dussollier, he finds a performer equally capable of giving shape to Choltitz’s conscience. Other cast members wander in and out of frame as needed, but the floor belongs to Arestrup and Dussollier. They’re a terrific match.
As Diplomacy’s briskly paced duologue proceeds, there’s a growing sense that it would be just at home on stage as on camera. That’s because Schlöndorff adapted it from a play by French dramaturge Cyril Gély, and taken extra care to preserve its theatrical sensibilities in the transition to celluloid. The result is a gorgeously shot, finely composed, tremendously acted bit of historical melodrama that reminds us how deep the atrocities of the Second World War run – and that our narrators won’t be done exploring them anytime soon.