Volker Schlöndorff, known for his film adaptation of Günter Grass's novel The Tin Drum, has just made a film of Cyril Gély's play Diplomatie, with the playwright serving as screenwriter. The play, premiered in 2011, takes up the same events as the book and film Is Paris Burning?, on a fateful night in 1944 when the German governor of Nazi-occupied Paris decided whether to carry out his orders to blow up the French capital as a final act of retribution. The play, which imagines the fateful all-night conversation between Swedish consul-general Raoul Nordling and General Dietrich von Choltitz, as the former tries to persuade the latter not to give the order, is a fictionalization, good theater but no more.
This is the strength of the film as well, as two veteran actors -- both reprising the roles they played on stage -- square off on opposing sides of this debate: can the love of art and culture ever triumph over the base instincts of war? Niels Arestrup (War Horse) is the inflexible German officer, who feels he cannot disobey an order from Berlin for fear that his wife and children will be made to pay for his insubordination. The Nordling of André Dussollier (Un Coeur en Hiver), the smooth voice that narrated Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain, tries every avenue to convince von Choltitz that he can spare Paris, the city that they both love. The consul gains entry to the general's office by a secret passage, which he says was installed when the Hôtel Meurice played host to one Miss Howard, a paramour of Napoléon III. The manner of his appearance, however, suggests that this dialogue is really taking place within the mind of von Choltitz.
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This is not a suspense or action movie, although there are a few tense sequences outside the headquarters as the German army prepares the explosives. Most of the appeal comes from the verbal sparring of the two protagonists, neither of whom is being quite honest with the other, and the dialogue, in French, is beautifully articulate. Somewhat surprisingly, Schlöndorff and his cinematographer, Michel Amathieu, do not flood the movie with eye-candy images of Paris. The decision is shrewd, for each viewer is allowed to summon up those parts of the city that he cannot imagine living without.
This movie opens today at the E Street Cinema.