By Paul Risker.
Cities rise, or fall, at the will of men. In a conflict of wills in 1944, Paris, the “City of Light,” was spared. Beyond the narrative presented in Volker Schlöndorff’s Diplomacy (2014) there inevitably lies a more compelling and intricate story of the events leading up to the liberation and salvation of the city. Nonetheless, a compelling piece of gamesmanship is the stage of this drama.
Adapted from Cyril Gely’s play (by the playwright and director) and set around either the Allied liberation or the Allied invasion of Paris, Diplomacy is a drama that looks to a singular, intimate moment in which a polite war is fought with words and ideas as opposed to the weapons of destruction that had shredded the continents of the world. It condenses the diplomatic conversations between the Nazi governor of Paris, Dietrich von Cholitz (Niels Arestrup), and Swedish diplomat Raoul Nordling (André Dussollier), who tussle over the fate of Paris. In reality the encounters between von Cholitz and Nordling were not contained to a single night, and there was a larger cast of players within this story that included Generals Charles de Gaulle and Dwight D. Eisenhower. But Schlöndorff, who crafts an immersive and claustrophobic chamber drama, can on this occasion be forgiven for his and Gely’s deviation from or dramatization of the truth.
Watching André Dussollier walk nonchalantly through a Parisian street, I couldn’t help but reflect on the tragic loss earlier this year of Alain Resnais. Whilst it seems that too many remain ignorant to Resnais’ passing where he is lost in the shadow of the deaths of Philip Seymour Hoffmann and Robin Williams, Dussollier worked with Resnais seven times in total; three times in the last ten years. With a taciturn face Dussollier possesses a unique ability to convey with silent ease both comedy and tragedy. In Diplomacy that face becomes yet another character, a silence with a deceiving depth of thought and emotion that makes him a compelling actor to duel with or to appeal to the humanity of von Cholitz.
Although a journey towards the light, Diplomacy opens with a heavy heart that is induced by the rhythmic doom and gloom beats of the second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No.7. It is important to mention, however, it is not the rhythm of an impending doom, but rather an unfolding doom as montages of images of war are married with the music of Beethoven who had himself witnessed the all-conquering ambitions of Napoleon Bonaparte. The aforementioned journey towards the light is represented by both Paris, the physical city, and the transcendence of one man’s rationality and humanity over the destructive duty he feels towards his country. It is here that Schlöndorff nurtures within his film’s subtext our intertwined relationship with one another as well as the physical space.
Michelangelo Antonioni demonstrated a penchant for observing his characters without committing an act of intrusion, whereby he respected the intimate communal space of his characters. Whilst Schlöndorff’s Diplomacy is not comparable to Antonioni’s crafting of cinematic observation, the direction within the confines of von Cholitz’s office is controlled and even formalistic, avoiding unnecessary stylistic flourishes. Rather these are reserved for raising and drawing the curtain on the drama with montages that pictorially represent the predatory shadow of war that lurked over Paris. Alongside other timely external scenes of action, Schlöndorff punctuates with effect the intimacy of the piece by contrasting the external conflict with the alternative tone of the internal conflict. Inside of von Cholitz’s office in the Hôtel Meurice, Schlöndorff offers the film as a stage to his two duelling lead actors whose interaction, movement and words become the heart and soul of recounting a chapter in a city’s life, one that was defined by the will of men.
When watching Diplomacy, one is forced to consider that in truth there are few things as compelling as the duel between opposing ideas and ideologies. Diplomacy offers an opportunity as viewers to contemplate or to realise the volatile course of events and possibilities that thus shape the future, and perhaps thankfully that there is not a single author of reality. It is a powerful thought that permeates the film, along with the disquieting realisation that the years bring with them an increasing realisation of the horrors of the Nazis that become more startling as we chase down the distance between ourselves and death. Diplomacy also offers a mature and rational contemplation of how evil, in truth a more complex force than we care to imagine, cannot be generalised.
In recent years Quentin Tarantino’s work has undertaken a subversive approach to history. Inglourious Basterds (2009) and Django Unchained (2012) have seen a collision between imagination and history, or rather one should say, hindsight encumbered by a moral desire and history presented by way of wish fulfilment. Diplomacy is a snapshot of men talking in the rooms of history, which is more moderately restrained in its approach to reimagining the past. In the company of Steven Spielberg’s recent film Lincoln (2012), Diplomacy will face accusations of being old and stuffy, an out of date approach to history in the wake of Tarantino’s subversive historical reimagining filled with a fiery vitality. Call me old and stuffy if you will, but a reverence should be both maintained and nurtured whereby film compromises its ability to observe and reimagine the past and also treat history as a playground. In this great art form there is room for both, and with any drama set in the past that is first and foremost entertainment, the storyteller is forced to confront the balancing act wherein drama can be both benefited as well as hindered by fact.
Diplomacy forces us to consider how human history has been defined by the obsessive need to possess, and yet the film presents an air of lightness. In this tale of two men caught amidst the changing tide of war, Schlöndorff both observes and creates a conflict of oppositions. Offsetting the presence of the civilised and intellectual against the brutality and malicious destruction of war, he is able to create a tale of light and shadows. In the end our violent instincts are suppressed, as we prove that we are capable of rationale thought and actions. But underlying this sense of optimism is a cynical and dark underbelly. Human frailty suggests that we are to remain victims of a propensity for grave violence towards one another and our cities which rise, fall or endure at our will.
Diplomacy will run at New York’s Film Forum until November 11. An interview with Schlöndorff by John Duncan Talbird will appear in Film International 12.4.
Paul Risker is a critic and writer for a number of on-line and print publications, including Little White Lies, Flickering Myth, Starburst Magazine, and VideoScope. He is currently based in the United Kingdom.