Blog Directory CineVerse: The power of persuasion

The power of persuasion

Sunday, February 18, 2024

Fair warning: The 2014 film Diplomacy, a French historical drama helmed by director Volker Schlöndorff and adapted from Cyril Gély's play of the same title, is one of those “based loosely on historical events” dramatizations that can infuriate scholars and historians. Nevertheless, even if it fudges the facts, it’s a compelling drama that unfolds against the backdrop of Nazi-occupied Paris in 1944, chronicling the efforts of Swedish diplomat Raoul Nordling, portrayed by André Dussollier, to dissuade General Dietrich von Choltitz—the German military governor of Paris, played by Niels Arestrup—from executing Adolf Hitler's directive to annihilate Paris before the Allies' arrival.

Dussollier and Arestrup deliver arresting performances, infusing their characters with depth and authenticity, while Schlöndorff's direction and the film's cinematography capture the tension and complexities of the narrative, effectively portraying the intricate negotiations and ethical dilemmas faced by the protagonists.

To hear a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of this movie, conducted earlier this month, click here.

What’s interesting about Diplomacy is that it’s an antiwar movie stripped to bare essentials, featuring only two main characters, filmed primarily in a single room, depicting very little actual combat and not featuring any personalities from or scenes involving the other warring side. This is the rare war film less about action than about words. In their essay for, George Lellis and Hans-Bernhard Moeller wrote: “It is easy to dramatize war, but much harder to dramatize peace. In Diplomatie, Gély and Schlöndorff have pulled off the trick of making anti-war works because they have provided a largely non-violent resolution to the conflict at hand. The superiority of the choice of non-violence over destruction is reinforced by a closing caption that tells us that Choltitz’s wife and children went unharmed, putting to rest Choltitz’s fears that if he disobeyed orders his family would be killed… Diplomacy thus deemphasizes spectacle in favor of talk, drawing one’s attention to the subtleties of dialogue and performance.”

Interestingly, the filmmakers use archival black-and-white footage of, first, the destruction of Warsaw to quickly demonstrate how ruthless and mighty the Nazis are at destroying a city, and second the encroachment of the Allies into Paris and the street combat involving the French resistance, to lend the film a sheen of verisimilitude.

Although the outcome is anticlimactic, considering that we know Paris wasn’t decimated, Schlöndorff and company effectively tighten the knot and create riveting suspense toward the conclusion as we await the general’s decision and observe the fictional close call among the soldiers preparing to detonate the explosives. Nordling and Choltitz go toe-to-toe with intriguing contentions for why the city should be spared or not, with the diplomat increasingly serving as the general’s conscience as the film progresses and penetrating the Nazi commander’s thick armor of resolve and self-imposed ethical immunity. By administering Choltitz’s medicine in time—therefore resisting the urge to let him die—and by responding “I don’t know” when the general asks him what he would do in his place, Nordling earns his trust, respect, and convincible ear.

Indeed, Diplomacy serves as a memorable lesson on empathy, or putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. When Choltitz asks Nordling what he would do in his place, he’s posing the question to the audience, too. While it’s easy to argue logically that saving over a million French lives would outweigh saving your wife and children, the reality is that, if the decision were up to you it might not be so easy to make.

The moral conflict at the heart of the tale is palpable: If you are sworn to obey orders and do what’s best for your soldiers and your country, should you disobey those orders if they come from a leader you no longer trust and from a motive of senseless violence and brutality?

Here, we also have a classic battle of wills. This story pits one man—a neutral diplomat with cunning and persuadable powers—against a grizzled military leader who holds the fate of a major city and future postwar world order in his hands. The stakes are incredibly high, and both men prove that they can cogently rationalize their arguments and weigh the pros and cons of the impending decision. Although the general appears unyielding and determined earlier in the film, we see cracks emerge in his stony façade as well as physical and moral vulnerability.

Diplomacy further posits that the fate of nations and the outcome of major historical events often hinge on the mere choice of one flawed human being. Although this 11th-hour meeting between Choltitz and Nordling is a dramatic fabrication, it demonstrates how the decision one person can make in human history can be incredibly impactful. Director Volker Schlondorff said in an interview: “War places men in extreme situations and brings out the best and worst in humanity. These days a conflict between France and Germany is so unthinkable that I found it interesting to recall the past relationships between our two countries. If, God forbid, Paris had been razed, I doubt that the Franco-German bond would have formed or that Europe would have pulled through.”

This film also shows how words can sometimes be more powerful than weapons, and how healthy human dialogue and well-timed, carefully articulated arguments can defuse even the most volatile of situations. “The movie presents an argument between civilization and barbarism, between the pleasure principle and the death instinct,” wrote New Yorker critic David Denby. “But the filmmakers mostly avoid high-flown rhetoric in favor of the intensely practical give-and-take of negotiation. Schlöndorff…makes a case that diplomacy can solve the most intricately knotted problems.”

Similar works

  • Is Paris Burning
  • The Devil’s General
  • Winterspelt
  • Frost/Nixon
  • Downfall
  • Conspiracy
  • Thirteen Days
  • Shake Hands With the Devil
  • Fail Safe
  • 12 Angry Men
  • Secret Honor
  • Missing
  • Films with narratives restricted by limited locations, like Rope, Rear Window, and Sleuth

Other films by Volker Schlondorff

  • The Tin Drum
  • Death of a Salesman (TV)
  • Enigma (TV)

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