In its sly way, this docu turns bio conventions upside down. By letting their soft-spoken subject do all the leading, the directors allow high-ranking diplomat Stephane Hessel to impose his own sense of drama, and humor, to a tale which softly touches virtually every aspect of political and cultural life in the 20th century. Global web berths await.
At first, “The Diplomat” appears to be simply a serviceable portrait of a smarter-than-usual civil servant. Little by little, though, you start to realize just how unique Hessel really is. An ambassador-for-life operating at the highest ranks of successive French governments, he was actually born in Berlin to bohemian parents — so bohemian, in fact, they were the model for the book (by Hessel’s father) which became Truffaut’s “Jules and Jim.”
Growing up in France, he fled to England at the start of World War II, and ended up returning as a key leader of the Resistance. Hessel was eventually captured and, managing to convince to Gestapo that he was too young to be the kingpin they were looking for, spent the rest of the war in (and escaping from) various concentration camps. Surviving all this, he became De Gaulle’s first ambassador to the United Nations and helped spearhead development campaigns in Africa, as well as post-colonial programs in Vietnam and Algeria.
Not bad for one courtly gentleman. But what really impresses about Hessel is his lack of ego, disdain for nationalism of all stripes, and unguarded enthusiasm for tasks others would find endlessly daunting. The closing scene of this clean-looking docu, which was shot in German and French versions, shows the 78-year-old diplomat skipping like a 3-year-old down the same cobbled Paris street where the Nazis picked him up; it’s more indelible than most images found in fiction films — and it was Hessel’s idea.