Sunday, September 20, 2015

How to prevent a carnage: Diplomacy (Volker Schlöndorff, 2014)

Diplomacy is the kind of movie you might expect to find in the film schedule of one of those invaluable government-funded cultural organizations like the Alliance Française or the Goethe Institut that foster international education programs, promoting tolerance, peace and intercultural dialogue. A Franco-German co-production dedicated to the memory of American diplomat Richard Holbrooke, also a friend and former collaborator of the director, Volker Schlöndorff's latest is amongst other things a celebration of humanitarianism and transnational cooperation over belligerence and blind obedience. The film  whose original title itself is cross-boundary, "Diplomatie" being both a French and a German word  is a fictionalized account of how the destruction of Paris ordered by Hitler in 1944 was warded off thanks to intensive negotiations conducted over the course of a single night by the Nazi-appointed military governor of Paris Dietrich von Choltitz (played by Niels Arestrup) and the Swedish consul-general Raoul Nordling (André Dussolier).

Having learned about the destruction plan and firmly determined to prevent a carnage and save Paris's cultural heritage, Nordling surreptitiously sneaks into the general's apartment in the sumptuous Hotel Meurice in the hope that he'll manage to persuade him to disobey Hitler's orders. Nordling knows that he's walking on thin ice, as he's got nothing but his persuasion skills to counterpose to the general's authority. But he also has the major advantage of dealing with an intelligent and cultivated adversary who is likely to understand the force of his arguments. His persuasive manners would have been of little value in the face of one of those obtuse kapos we often encounter in WWII movies.

The story outcome is self-evident also to those unfamiliar with the events narrated, but the film expertly takes advantage of the paradox of suspense and manages to keep up the tension throughout. Except for some brief scenes showing the military maneuvers occurring outside of the building, we stay in the general's apartment for most of the running time. Schlöndorff plays with our expectations by threatening to close negotiations at an early stage, when von Choltitz orders his uninvited and obstinate guest to leave the room. Anyway, we are well aware that this is not going to happen very soon: if von Choltitz managed to drive him away, we would have no film and no Paris either. We may be reminded of Polanski's Carnage, where the crucial meeting the film wouldn't exist without is interrupted and then resumed two times. A subtle visual device also helps keep the tension up. Just as Hitchcock in Rope used a time-elapse matte painting of the New York skyline changing from day to night, in Diplomacy the (natural) Parisian sky slowly brightening through the apartment's windows functions like a hourglass signaling how much time is left for Nordling to complete his mission.

In case you're wondering whether Diplomacy is an accurate chronicle of the diplomatic efforts carried out during WWII to save Paris from imminent destruction, the answer is a definite no. If von Choltitz and Nordling certainly played a crucial role in the process, that's about where historical accuracy ends, since not only other personalities were involved  notably the chairman of the municipal council Pierre Taittinger and many members of the Resistance  but also the role of the Nazi governor was far more ambiguous than portrayed in the film. In fact, while von Choltitz in his 1950 autobiography Brennt Paris? claimed to himself the merit of having spared the French capital, a version which was also confirmed by his (perhaps not exactly super partes) son Timo in an interview to the French television in 2004, other theories, particularly that of former French Resistance fighter Maurice Kriegel-Valrimont, tend to describe the general as a ruthless and zealous officer wholly devoted to Hitler's cause, and to ascribe his final decision to merely opportunistic considerations of political convenience and self-preservation.

A faithful account of a still contentious historical event, anyway, is clearly not Schlöndorff's main concern nor that of Cyril Gély, the author of the play the film is based on. The impending annihilation of Paris is partly an excuse to enact a sophisticated Kammerspiel with moral implications. Actually, most of the entertainment comes from seeing which arguments and counterarguments are brought up during a nightlong battle of wits and wills, each party unsheathing its rhetorical sword under the pressure of an imminent Diktat. Great emphasis is put on the huge responsibility resting on the general's shoulders. Von Choltitz's character embodies the ancient dilemma of whether to comply with superior orders when these are incompatible with one's principles, a question complicated by the fact that disobedience in wartime often puts at risk the lives of the defector's family: introduced by Hitler in the aftermath of his failed assassination attempt in July 1944, the Sippenhaft law established that relatives of alleged dissidents of the Third Reich were considered as accomplices and punished accordingly.

Volker Schlöndorff, the man behind the endlessly imaginative The Tin Drum (1979), gives us here an overall entertaining and competently made film. And yet, one is left with the impression that something more powerful and thought-provoking could have been made of this material. For one thing you may notice, as I did, a bit of a stretch in how every element introduced at the beginning magically falls into place at just the right time, in strict compliance with Chekhov's Gun principle. This is one of those movies where if you happen to encounter an asthmatic character, you start counting down the minutes until the plot point when his health problem will prove crucial. This makes the story feel contrived at times despite Arestrup and Dussolier's superb performances.

(*Mild spoiler in the next section*)

I also got the feeling that Schlöndorff has somewhat gilded the pill by refusing to explore the scenario in which von Choltitz's family pays the consequences of his desertion. Sure, everything turned out well for them in the end, a text assures us. But how would we regard the whole diplomatic operation if the price to pay had been the massacre of an entire expendable family? It's beyond question that their sacrifice would have been justified by circumstances, although I cringe at the word. But I wish the film had explored that possibility more explicitly, at the risk of throwing a sinister light on the much-celebrated art of diplomacy. That being said, I recognize that it's unfair to criticize a film for how little it meets one's expectations, and that's why I consider this unexplored path less a flaw and more a measure of its ambitions. As a historical drama it's a pretty enjoyable and somewhat edifying experience.

Which mostly explains why Diplomacy can be an ideal educational vehicle to promote the importance of diplomacy, dialogue, mutual cooperation and other largely shared values. Which is fine, I suppose. But if you're looking for a film that doesn't indulge in romanticism, and is unafraid to look at the inherent contradictions the way to peace is paved with, you might want to look elsewhere.

It turns out that both the Alliance Française and the Goethe Institut did actually include Diplomacy in their film schedules.

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