The thwarting of a defeated Hitler’s plans to destroy Paris in a Götterdämmerung of flood and fire is one of many much-contended controversies of the Second World War. Was the hitherto ultra-loyal military governor, General von Choltitz, really the heroic saviour of Paris, or did he simply cut his losses once he knew the game was up? Did the Germans still have enough explosive power to carry out Hitler’s devastatingly spiteful order? Exactly what was said in the all-night meeting at the Hotel Meurice between Choltitz and Raoul Nordling, the Swedish diplomat tasked with the mission to save Paris?
Playwright Cyril Gely made the most of these unknowns to create a deceptively simple piece of theatre that understandably gripped Parisian audiences (and which also, arguably, worked as a timely riposte to those who flatly declare “we don’t negotiate with terrorists”).
For the most part, Volker Schlöndorff’s film adaptation sticks close to what detractors might dismiss as the staginess of the source material. While a recent film like Fury is more typical of post-Private Ryan depictions of the bloody spectacle of battle, Diplomacy is, as the title would suggest, far more jaw-jaw than war-war. In fact, apart from some cliffhanging cutaways to the demolition team laying the explosives and awaiting the order to light the fuse, Diplomacy mostly consists of two old men talking the night away in a room. But with performances so arresting as those of the two leads, and with the colossal stakes behind all that verbosity so clearly delineated, the eighty-odd minutes fly lightly by while at the same time carrying a profound weight of knotty historical circumstance.
Niels Arestrup, who played the Brando-esque prison don in Jacques Adiard’s A Prophet, is unsettlingly mesmerising as the complex Choltitz. By turns contemptuous, arrogant, weary and finally, it seems, humane (highly contentious in itself, given that he unhesitatingly obeyed the order to murder thousands of Jews in the Russian campaign), Arestrup’s Choltitz never descends into strutting caricature, despite making it clear that he has the power of a still-unflinchingly genocidal state behind him.
As Nordling, Andre Dussollier marvellously conveys the sense of an apparently assured diplomat delicately probing for weak spots. At the same time he suggests how uneasily aware he is that a wrong word could result in his own summary execution (or worse) and the immediate obliteration of the City of Lights.
Schlöndorff is perhaps the most overtly political of the New German Cinema which began in the 70s (and which included his own ex-wife Margarethe von Trotta as well as Fassbinder, Herzog and Wenders). In contrast to the anarchic provocations of his most famous film, The Tin Drum, Diplomacy is directed with a crisp efficiency which sometimes borders on the old-fashioned. Jörg Lemberg’s music, in particular, intrusively tells us how to feel, even to the point of whipping up concern for the war criminal Choltitz as he almost succumbs to an asthma attack. But Schlöndorff’s approach otherwise seems just right for this stark depiction of the verbal duelling between two massively contrasting personalities.
As with Brian Singer’s Valkyrie, we know full well how the events will turn out, yet such is the skill of the story-telling, it sometimes feels as though we’re teetering on the edge of an outcome we know to be impossible.
There’s a strain of romanticism throughout too, which might have seemed sentimentally misplaced elsewhere. But here, as Nordling gazes out at a Parisian sunrise and lyrically soliloquizes on its status as a jewel of civilization, we’re movingly made all the more aware of just what is at stake in the desperate, sinuous, sometimes ruthless diplomatic manoueverings within this thoroughly gripping drama.
Diplomacy is currently playing at the Cineplex Forum
Jim Burke is a playwright and arts journalist originally from England, now resident in Montreal. Amongst his plays are Cornered and an adaptation of Moby Dick. He has written plays for BBC radio. In England, he was Theatre Editor for the arts and lifestyle magazine City Life. Jim currently teaches creative writing at Dawson College’s Centre For Training and Development.