“While the setup is magnificent and the film is shot in an exquisitely classical way, the tension at hand seems misaligned and emphasized in the wrong places.”
by Ken B.
The thing that comes with making a historical movie which climaxes with an obvious point – much like how Lincoln is about the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment – is that there has to be a form of tension that is decently heavy without coming off as artificial. In the case of the Spielberg film, Tony Kushner’s dialogue typifies a dramatization of the legislative process with constant bartering punctured by grandeur and speech. In Volker Schlöndorff’s Diplomacy, the raison d’être at hand is a last-ditch attempt, on the night of August 24 and the morning of August 25, 1944, to halt a failing Adolf Hitler’s plans to level the city of Paris, for no other discernible reason than so its beauty and structure does not obscenely overtake Berlin’s, by then the subject of massive Allied bombings. While the setup is magnificent and the film is shot in an exquisitely classical way, the tension at hand seems misaligned and emphasized in the wrong places – the fact that Paris is still, you know, a city deflates a significant portion of what’s going on, however, there are certainly points where Schlöndorff is able to focus in a place where historical context or suspension of knowledge is not needed to create a powerful work.
Tasked with stopping the decimation of the city of light is Swedish-French diplomat Raoul Nordling (André Dussollier), who has a personal as well as professional reason to keep the metropolis alive. He must convince the asthmatic and one-track-minded Nazi general Dietrich von Choltitz (Niels Arestrup) to abandon Hitler’s direct, fully strategized, and resourced plans to flood, blow up, and just plain dismember both residential areas and iconic landmarks. Most of the 83 minute film takes place within the confines of von Choltitz’ impromptu office at the luxurious Hôtel Meurice, which Nordling is able to enter stealthily through a secret passageway, a move telling of the entire movie’s mood – quiet and subdued, sneakily attempting to draw to (or avoid) a sudden, violent conclusion.
Both Dussollier and Arestrup are storied, acclaimed European actors, so there’s no outset questioning of their ability to bring to life the words of Schlöndorff and co-writer Cyril Gely, who wrote the stageplay that Diplomacy is adapted from. The dialogue, despite the fact that a given scene is either in French or German and therefore subtitled for English-speaking audiences, still carries an audible air of importance and multifaceted backing drive, both a credit to the performers and the source material. This is definitely a movie where action, and even to an extent plot, are overpowered by the delicacies of each scene, the technicalities of the performances and how they are paced throughout the runtime. It succeeds from that rather limited perspective, but that doesn’t account for a wholly satisfying experience, and at times doesn’t even come close.
When Diplomacy betrays its theatrical roots and “opens up” to examine the growing resistance powers and the increasing violence against the Nazi occupiers, the film becomes notably more interesting, as the inherent drama of war and the people caught up in it zooms to the forefront, as opposed to the stoic, well-acted, but vaguely phony-feeling implied, and later uttered-in-real-life question of “Is Paris burning?” which has been safely answered by the viewer going in. Many movies, of course, are based on real life events, and the best ones craft a unique approach which is able to foster and provoke good material out of examining various aspects of a story, or unique approaches to the main one. My guess is that Diplomacy works better on the stage, where it is presumably a more stripped down and live showcase of two actors in intense dialogue. As a film, it feels a bit uninteresting – a finely tuned piece of performance literature but never quite hitting full on.