Tensions are running high on the night of August 24th, 1944. The end of World War II is near, and General Dietrich von Choltitz (Niels Arestrup) has one goal: to destroy La Ville Lumière, Paris. Consul Raoul Nordling (André Dussollier), the Swedish–French diplomat, is tasked with stopping Choltitz from completely annihilating his beloved town, acting under Hitler’s order. If he fails, 1.5 million French citizens will be buried alongside a bombed–out Louvre, Notre Dame and Eiffel Tower.
And thus begins a dramatic and intense psychological game of politics. Director Volker Schlöndorff (known for his 1979 hit “The Tin Drum”) does not work with much. Most of the film is based in one room, with two characters (Arestrup’s performance is quite mesmerizing), but the film does not lack suspense or character development. Viewers don’t wonder how the story will end—obviously Paris is still standing—but how a general who must obey orders (unless he wants to lose his wife and children) changes his mind at the very last minute.
“Diplomatie” is not your typical war film, and yet, it is very much a “war film.” It juxtaposes two men of opposing sides, reduced to re–evaluating their humanity in one room in the quintessential Parisian Hotel Le Meurice. Stripped of their titles, they must face questions of culture (what is Paris without its museum, art and architecture?), humanity (are some lives worth more than others?), justice (how is one responsible for justice?) and fate (are the Germans ready to accept their inevitable defeat?).
Many aspects of the film are to be expected: discussions and heated debates between an orderly German general and an ambitious diplomat working for the other side are accompanied by a powerful soundtrack that makes the fiction–meets–fact tale come alive.
Surprisingly, however, this French–German film does not evoke shots of the beautiful city until the very end. Instead, Paris comes to life through Nordling’s speeches, as he asks his opposition about his options, family and sickness in a frame that could almost garner compassion if not friendship. If you’re a fan of the city, then you will surely rejoice at the classic references (ranging from works of art to a hotel suite that belonged to one of Napoleon’s many mistresses). You'll definitely want to watch the one night that saved Paris from destruction.