January 20, 2019

Words as weapons in new film ‘Diplomacy’

As American and Free French divisions closed in on Nazi-occupied Paris in late August 1944, Hitler issued a clear order to the commander of Wehrmacht troops in the French capital.

Before evacuating the City of Light, the Führer told Gen. Dietrich von Choltitz to blow up such landmarks as the Notre Dame Cathedral, Louvre museum, Eiffel Tower, Place de la Concorde and Arc de Triomphe.

As a finishing touch, German sappers would blow up all 23 bridges across the Seine.

Von Choltitz was the right man to carry out such barbarous orders. The scion of generations of Prussian soldiers and the most highly decorated German soldier of World War II, he had proven in the destruction of Rotterdam and Sevastopol and the extermination of Crimean Jews that he would obey any order — whatever his personal reservations.

As the movie “Diplomacy” opens, it is the night of Aug. 24, 1944, stretching in to the wee hours of the following morning, and the exploding shells of the approaching Allied armies can be heard in the distance, as von Choltitz, in his headquarters at the Hotel Meurice, checks the final preparations for blowing up Paris.

Suddenly, by way of a secret passage unknown to the Germans, Swedish Consul General Raoul Nordling enters. The German and the Swede had met before, and Nordling has taken upon himself the almost hopeless mission of persuading von Choltitz to ignore Hitler’s orders and evacuate the city, leaving it intact.

What follows is a nightlong battle of wits and character between von Choltitz and Nordling, on whose outcome depends the fate of the city.

Given the streams of tourists that still enjoy the glorious panorama of Paris each year, it is obvious that, in the end, the Swede convinced the general to spare the city, but in re-creating this battle of wits between the two men, the outcome feels by no means certain.

Von Choltitz is not a stupid man — he realizes that Germany has lost the war and that Hitler is teetering on the edge of insanity — but he cannot shake his reflexive obedience to a superior’s orders.

At one point, the general recalls that the most difficult order he had ever received was to liquidate all Jews on the Crimean Peninsula, but that he “executed the order in its entirety, nevertheless.”

Amid the mental and moral struggle and the uprising of French partisans in the streets outside, phone calls come from Berlin in which the Führer demands to know, “Is Paris burning?”

Still, there’s an occasional flash of sheer absurdity. Two wounded German soldiers who had managed to evade the encircling Allied troops arrive with a demand from SS Chief Heinrich Himmler.

Before the Louvre is blown up, they report, Himmler wants to extract some specific tapestries and paintings for his private collection.

In the battle of arguments between von Choltitz and Nordling, during which the Swedish envoy notes that his wife is Jewish, the German holds one trump card.

Hitler has just promulgated an edict that if any German officer should disobey his orders or desert his post, the officer’s immediate family will be executed or sent to a concentration camp.  

Von Choltitz, the father of two daughters and a newly born son, turns to Nordling and asks, “If you were in my place, what would you do?”

It is a variation on the question facing every thinking man or woman after the Holocaust. If a Jewish child had knocked on your door in the middle of the night asking for shelter, and you knew that if you took the Jew in and were caught, you and your family would likely be killed, what would you have done?

After considerable hesitation, Nordling answers truthfully, “I do not know what I would do.”

The drama inherent in the survival of perhaps the world’s most beautiful city has yielded a considerable literary output.

In the chaos surrounding the downfall of the Third Reich, von Choltitz managed to escape Hitler’s wrath. He was taken prisoner by the Allies, but was released after two years and went on to write his version of history in the book “Brennt Paris?”

This title, translated into English, was appropriated in the mid-1960s by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre in their best-seller, “Is Paris Burning?” The title and plotline became a movie in 1966, with a stellar cast including Orson Welles as the Swedish diplomat and Kirk Douglas (as U.S. Gen. George Patton), Charles Boyer, Leslie Caron, Simone Signoret, Glenn Ford and Yves Montand.

More recently, French author Cyril Gely adopted some of the material into his play “Diplomatie,” which in turn was adapted by German director Volker Schlondorff for his movie “Diplomacy.”

He also took over the two principal, and superb, actors in the play, Niels Arestrup, son of a Danish father and a French mother, as von Choltitz, and Andre Dussollier as Nordling.

Except for an occasional barked German command, the entire movie is in French with English subtitles.

Schlondorff, born in Germany but educated in France, has frequently returned to World War II themes in such movies as “The Tin Drum,” “The Ogre” and “The Ninth Day.” He is a man given to straightforward answers, as I discovered 13 years ago when I interviewed him for the Los Angeles Times.

“ ‘Diplomacy,’ like the play on which it is based, is not a documentary but a drama,” Schlondorff said. “Von Choltitz and Nordling knew each other, but there was no crucial all-night session, and no secret staircase leading to the general’s office.”

Furthermore, one school of thought holds that it was not Nordling, but Pierre Taittinger, head of the Paris municipal council and a collaborator during the German occupation, who persuaded von Choltitz to spare the city from destruction.

Another theory has it that von Choltitz decided that he could disobey Hitler’s orders, not through appeals to his conscience, but because the general had gradually recognized that the Führer had gone mad.

Nevertheless, by its actions, the post-war French government has given credence to the play’s central thesis. In Paris, a park and a street have been renamed in Nordling’s honor. More surprisingly, when von Choltitz died in Germany in 1964, high-ranking French officers attended his funeral.

Schlondorff said that what attracted him to the material was a chance to highlight the importance to Europe of the French-German relationship.

He criticized his country for using its economic muscle against European Union countries “we once occupied” but sees a deeper meaning in the movie.

Ultimately, he said, “What we must examine is the power of words against weapons.”

 “Diplomacy” opens Nov. 7 at the Laemmle Royal, Playhouse 7, Town Center 5 and Claremont 5.