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The Rhythm Section

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The Rhythm Section

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Before leaving Paris in defeat, the German army was prepared to blow up 33 of the city’s bridges, along with Notre Dame Cathedral, the Louvre, the Paris Opera and the Eiffel Tower.

Hitler evidently surveyed a ruined Berlin, and, in a fit of Nazi pique, decided Paris had to be leveled, as well.

Arestrup and Dussollier engage in Diplomacy
Arestrup and Dussollier engage in Diplomacy

General Dietrich von Choltitz, the military governor of Paris, was ordered to carry out the destruction of a city that Hitler’s forces had occupied from 1940 until the summer of 1944.

In Diplomacy, director Volker Schlondorff (The Tin Drum and The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum) creates a speculative drama that focuses on the confrontation that kept von Choltitz from obeying the Fuhrer’s order.

In the bargain, Schlondorff obtains memorable performances from Niels Arestrup, as von Choltitz, and Andre Dussollier, as Raoul Nordling, the Swedish diplomat who tries to persuade von Choltitz to do the right thing for western civilization — not to mention for the thousands of Parisian civilians who would have perished had German bombs been detonated.

Von Choltitz and Nordling meet in von Choltitz’s office in the Hotel Le Meurice in late August of 1944. There, they engage in a lengthy conversation that hones in on a variety of disturbing moral questions. The screenplay is based on a play by Cyril Gely, who co-wrote the movie with Schlondorff.

If you know the 2009 movie A Prophet, you’ll recognize Arestrup as having played the powerful leader of a prison gang. Dussollier is familiar from a variety of French films, many directed by Alain Resnais.

Arestrup acquits himself well as a military man who takes pride in following orders. A soldier’s ethos — or von Choltitz’s idea of one — allows him to maintain his self-respect, even though he participated in the annihilation of the Jews of Sevastopol.

Von Choltitz knows that the German cause is lost, but sees no reason for forsaking his duty, and he’s contemptuous of the French for not fighting to the last man when the Germans took over Paris.

Dussollier portrays a worthy adversary, arguing with a man who is not used to having his authority questioned. Nordling must balance pleas to reason with a modicum of respect (real or feigned) for von Choltitz’s position, which is revealed to be increasingly complex. As the story unfolds, Nordling proves himself a man of great guile.

This subject was tackled previously by director Rene Clement in Is Paris Burning (1966), but Schlondorff gives us a gripping little drama about men who hold the fate of a great city in their hands. They thrust, parry and calculate as they work their way toward the movie’s conclusion.

Of course, we know from the outset that Paris won’t be destroyed, but Schlondorff uses an epic encounter to assay the character of men facing the extreme pressures of an unfolding — and then undetermined — piece of history.