The Act of Disobedience that Saved Paris (Film Review: “Diplomacy”)

A fact-based, intellectual nail-biter about the Conversation that saved a city, Diplomacy argues for Humanity over Allegiance.

SnapShot Plot

I keep saying that Norma’s Streaming Picks is for people who prefer characters over super-heroes, although what we have in the historical drama, Diplomacy, is actually both. Although most of the movie consists of one long conversation between two aging figures, the fact that the fate of arguably the most beautiful city on earth rests squarely on their shoulders imbues in them both super-human powers of epic consequence.

By 1944, the war in Europe had ravaged a continent and with the recent Allied landing, it was only a matter of days until the German army would be chased out of Paris and back to Berlin where a blubbering madman was desperately hanging onto power amidst the collapse of the entire Third Reich. Hitler had vowed to destroy Paris completely if his troops were forced to retreat – despite or maybe because he found the city so enchanting – and when the movie begins in the wee hours of August 25, all the explosives have already been laid, just waiting for the order to detonate. The German general charged with that call was Dietrich von Choltitz, a career officer of two world wars, only assigned to Paris two weeks before the action takes place. In a chilling scene in which the poor Parisian engineer hijacked into the destruction design, along with other soldiers, points out on maps and photos exactly how the city would fall to its knees and into oblivion, it seems the General is not only committed to the plan but eagerly anticipates it. After the others leave the room, with the doomsday clock ticking down for the city of Paris, a figure appears in the shadows and confronts the General about his decision to comply with Hitler’s orders.

When Swedish Consul-General, Raoul Nordling (born and raised in Paris) identifies himself to the surprised General Choltitz, there’s a moment of shared recognition and cordiality between the two men before Choltitz attempts to have him thrown out repeatedly but each time fate intervenes and the conversation continues. . . with the clock measuring the minutes until the General is to phone his men with orders to detonate the first explosives. And what a conversation it is, as Nordling the diplomat appeals to the General on a multitude of rhetorical fronts, only to meet intransigent duty mixed with a good dose of Wehrmacht arrogance. Arguments of reason, of humanity, of practical logic, even historical shame fall on deaf ears until the moment we finally understand why the General feels he has no choice in the matter but to destroy the city of Paris and exterminate her 1.5 million citizens. And it makes perfect, human sense. Can Nordling quash the scenario running through Choltitz’s mind to free him to do the right thing? It will take every ounce of diplomatic talent and tact, and all the luck in the world, to reverse a plan as methodically deadly, with so many moving, human parts.



Parting Shot

Although it’s a slight stretch to believe him as a German, I can’t imagine any other actor than Niels Arestrup (You Will Be My Son; The Big Picture) in the role of Choltitz. His barely reigned-in ferocity, the intelligence in the eyes, the sudden physical outbursts and short but violent fits of temper all make up the palette of this unyielding yet tortured character. Veteran actor, André Dussollier is a brilliant choice for Nordling, who has nothing to rely on but his wit, charm, and talent for persuasion. Oh, and did I mention that voice? It’s like gravel poured over chocolate; you have to listen, and pay attention (you may recall his voice as the narrator of the French film, Amélie).

Diplomacy succeeds to build suspense despite the fact that we know how it (thankfully) turns out. The pacing of the conversation, the action going on in the background, and the startling historic video footage helped to make this possible. The film also urged me to contemplate it’s deeper themes of obedience and blind loyalty in the face of obvious madness and folly. How ironic, too, that the disobedience of one man could only work for the good of the city if his men were obedient to the end, waiting for that final order before throwing the first switch (except for one sudden, surprising moment in the action).

Legendary director, Volker Schlöndorff (Tin Drum, Swann in Love) adapted the screenplay with Cyril Gely from Gely’s play, hence the one-stage action within the hotel room dominating the movie. There are some needed cutaways to emphasize the threat of the bombs (which have already been laid) as well as the Germans awaiting orders in the tunnels and the French Resistance fighters in the background, but the heartwood of the film is the conversation itself. Of course I was reminded of Louis Malle’s brilliant and seminal film from the 80’s, My Dinner With Andre, as it’s entirely made up of one conversation between two old friends taking place over dinner in a restaurant. The point I’m trying to make is this: If a piece of dialogue is written as well as this one, we don’t need to cut away from the conversation to get too much relief in the form of action. As Roger Ebert wrote in his review of My Dinner With Andre, he described the audience’s imagination filling in the blanks from the character’s verbal descriptions, or “the well-known ability of the mind to picture a story as it is being told.” (Think Radio). And although it’s completely taken out of context here, there’s a line from that movie in which Andre Gregory theorizes that the 1960s were “the last burst of the human being before he was extinguished”. Somehow I think it’s a fitting end to a conversation two men had early one morning which saved an irreplaceable piece of Humanity.

Diplomacy is presently streaming on Netflix.

Raoul Nordling in Paris in the 50’s

Bundesarchiv Bild 183-2003-1112-500, Dietrich v. Choltitz-2.png

General Dietrich von Choltitz in 1940


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1 Comment

  • Ray Frenzel says:

    Liked this one a lot. Loved “Is Paris Burning?”, a great accounting of the liberation of Paris and the massive egos of the American, English and French leadership. Wonderful book.

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