On the heels of one recent cinematic lesson in World War II history, veteran German director Volker Schlöndorff takes a look at a different sort of “monuments men” in “Diplomacy,” an intimate dialogue concerning the fate of occupied Paris. Adapted from a play by Cyril Gely and set on the eve of the Liberation in August 1944, the French import dramatizes a conversation between Dietrich von Choltitz, the city’s German military governor, and Raoul Nordling, a Paris-born Swedish diplomat. The dinosaur-size bone of contention between them: the cultural, historical, and moral ramifications of Hitler’s order for von Choltitz to destroy the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, the Louvre, and the city’s other hallowed landmarks to spite approaching Allied forces. Clearly, the two men have a bit to discuss. Think of it as René Clément’s 1966 “Is Paris Burning?” reexamined with stripped-down, arthouse restraint.
Much of this back-and-forth is compelling. After some opening newsreel footage of the Nazis’ planned destruction of Warsaw, Schlöndorff (“The Tin Drum”) ushers us straight to von Choltitz (Niels Arestrup, “War Horse”) in his hotel chambers. We can tell that he’s a proud, self-possessed old soldier (a noble characterization that historically has generated some controversy), but the Germans’ imminent defeat has him on edge. A strategy meeting with a coerced French engineer lays out the plans von Choltitz dutifully intends to carry out, from blowing up bridges all along the Seine to toppling Paris’s grandest icons. Enter the elegantly conciliatory Nordling (André Dussollier, “Micmacs”) — through a secret, Napoleon-constructed staircase, naturally — to plead with the general that some orders aren’t meant to be followed.
The way the actors play Von Choltitz’s stubbornness and Nordling’s persistence makes for some crisp sparring. Nordling floats the biblical analogy of Abraham’s blind willingness to sacrifice his son for God, and asks who’d want such a father, no matter his constancy; von Choltitz bemusedly wonders at Nordling’s choice of a Jewish figure to make his point. With dawn breaking over Paris, Nordling poetically asks von Choltitz to imagine returning with his family in a few years’ time, taking in the city’s rich atmosphere with the knowledge that he helped save it. The general counters that he’d be alone, his family just a memory (for political reasons laid out in a midpoint reveal).
Between these exchanges, though, there’s a fair amount of talking in circles, even with the film’s brisk running time. The dialogue also reflects the material’s stage origins in ways that don’t always translate well. “Berlin is in ruins,” says one German lieutenant, theatrically offering some insight into Hitler’s rationale. “While Paris is as glorious as ever.” A cautionary note from Nordling is defter: “You’ll be remembered as the man who destroyed Paris.” Given how we remember the names of Himmler, Goebbels, and Göring, it’s a line that rings darkly true.
Watch the film’s trailer: