The time is August 1944, and as the Allies march toward Paris, the city’s artistic and architectural riches lie in danger of Nazi dynamiting. No, it isn’t “Return of the Monuments Men,” but rather Volker Schlondorff’s “Diplomacy,” another movie set at the same historical moment that may be far smaller in scale than George Clooney’s limp epic, but proves to be vastly more passionate, engaging and emotional in its depiction of the relationship between Dietrich von Cholitz, the German military governor of occupied Paris, and Swedish consul-general Raoul Nordling. A fine return to form for the veteran German helmer (“The Tin Drum”), adapted from French playwright Cyril Gely’s 2011 stage success, this classy drama of political manners should stir plenty of patriotic fervor in Gaul (where it opens March 5) and score brisk sales to offshore arthouse shingles.
In reality, there never was an all-night powwow between Nordling and von Cholitz like the one devised by Gely for his play. Rather, the men met multiple times in the days leading up to the Allies’ entrance into the city, the former persuading the latter not to proceed with a Hitler-mandated plan to do to Paris what the Allies had already done to Berlin. In movies, these events were previously the basis for Rene Clement’s “Is Paris Burning?,” a sprawling 1966 superproduction that cast Gert “Goldfinger” Frobe as von Cholitz and Orson Welles as Nordling, with a screenplay credited to Gore Vidal and the young Francis Coppola. “Diplomacy,” by contrast, is a far more intimate affair, effectively a two-hander mostly confined to a single set, performed by two actors — Andre Dussollier and Niels Arestrup — who loom as large as any David Lean landscape.
Schlondorff has “opened up” the play ever so slightly, with a few scenes set in the occupied Paris streets and a few closing shots of the Seine that quietly take your breath away, profound in their sense of all that might have been lost. In between, we are mostly in the Hotel Meurice, on the Rue de Rivoli, which served as von Cholitz’s HQ during the war and which Schlondorff and production designer Jacques Rouxel envision as a hive of activity, with soldiers and assorted other visitors rushing to and from amid the elegant 18th-century architecture. Arriving by night via a hidden staircase that he claims was used by Napoleon’s mistress, Nordling (Dussollier)has the quicksilver elan of the career diplomat who understands the benefits of keeping friends close and enemies closer — a character Graham Greene might have written. Von Cholitz (Arestrup) is proud but weary, a dutiful soldier following orders, yet keenly aware of how history will regard him.
What follows is an elegant orchestrated pas de deux between formidable opponents — the man of words who knows when to flatter and when to gently insist, and the man of war who is every bit as quick with his mind as with his sword. “What if an order is absurd?” asks the diplomat. “What would you do in my shoes?” responds the Nazi. To be sure, we are in that authorial fantasy by which historical figures become shrewder, sharper and wittier than they surely were in life — the domain of Peter Morgan and Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.” But when the actors and the dialogue are this good, one scarcely objects.
Schlondorff, who was born a few months before the outbreak of WWII and studied filmmaking in France (where he began his career as an assistant to the likes of Louis Malle and Alain Resnais), is in many ways an ideal director for this material — a man with a foot in each of the movie’s worlds who has himself broached the subject of the war several times before in is career, most notably in his acid adaptation of Gunter Grass’ “The Tin Drum.” “Diplomacy” is less directly about the horrors of war than about the art of negotiation, and as such Schlondorff brings a more delicate touch. Shooting in widescreen with the d.p. Mathieu Amathieu, he shoots von Scholitz’s expansive Meurice suite in expressive wide angles, and he’s worked well with both actors (who originated these roles on stage) to rescale their performances for the screen.
That’s particularly true of Arestrup, who has the trickier role, the one that easily could have descended into hoary cliches of the proverbial good German. But Arestrup — who made his screen debut in “Stavisky” 40 years ago and has only latterly emerged as one of the great French screen actors of his generation — never plays cute and cuddly, yet finds von Scholitz’s inner dignity. He plays him as a man who has unquestionably done horrible things, who has been too long in the storm to turn back, but who’s far too canny to go down with the ship. And thus his final march down the steps of the Meurice, head held high, becomes a fascinating mix of dignity and empty ceremony.
Virginie Bruant’s crisp editing further enhances an ace tech package. Soundtrack includes well-timed bits of Beethoven’s 7th and Madeline Peyroux singing “J’ai deux amours” alongside Jorg Lemberg’s unobtrusive original score.