It is the evening of Aug. 24, 1944, and Allied troops are headed for Occupied Paris. The Wehrmacht, commanded by Gen. Dietrich von Choltitz, are IS preparing to dynamite all the bridges in the city except the Pont Neuf, and all the landmarks. All that remains is for the order to be given.
“Diplomacy,” the new film by Volker Schlöndorff (“The Tin Drum”), which opens Wednesday, Oct. 15, begins with the final meeting in which that plan is reiterated by the French engineer Lanvin (Jean-Marc Roulot), who apparently has created or supervised it. But at least one neutral observer has other intentions.
Raoul Nordling, the Paris-born and -bred Swedish consul, played by André Dussollier, has secreted himself in the hotel suite that serves as the German headquarters, and he plans one last desperate attempt to dissuade Choltitz (Niels Arestrup) to ignore Hitler’s orders and save the city. In the film, the two actors reprise their roles from Cyril Gely’s “Diplomatie,” the French play upon which the film is based. It bristles with smart dialogue and deep feelings.
As a showcase for its canny veteran leads, “Diplomacy” is a smart highlight reel, a crash course in quiet scene stealing and the subtleties of acting in concert with a fellow veteran. In short, the film exists as a sort of five-finger exercise in which Dussollier and Arestrup get to show off their chops. Nordling is suave and supremely civilized. His arguments on behalf of humanity and heritage are surprisingly understated; one assumes that he expects the enchantments of Paris to carry the day for him. Choltitz is icy cool, self-contained and often sphinx-like, although the film’s ending suggests that it is the Swede and not the German who has been playing his cards more stealthily.
Unfortunately, that’s where things break down. For all their considerable craft, neither of the two lead actors is able to turn his character into a living human being. The script’s lack of preachiness certainly helps make it bearable, but one is all too conscious of the turning wheels of the plot. The film has all the warmth of a well-played game of chess but none of the intellectual rigor.
What Schlöndorff gives viewers is a paint-by-numbers thriller with the moral sophistication of a Hollywood propaganda film made during the war. Choltitz’s well-known involvement in mass murder of Jews in Ukraine is mentioned but barely pondered. A fortuitously timed asthma attack and a deputation of vulgarians from Himmler are crudely used to advance the plot. An essential act of heroism is committed by a character whose action makes absolutely no sense in terms of his psychology, but has the impeccable logic of very mechanical writing, and the film’s final plot twist calls into the question the central ethical dilemma of the entire story.
Schlöndorff doesn’t help matters by treating the material like a conventional thriller. His trip-hammer editing rhythms just aren’t acute enough to draw the audience into the flimsy suspense mechanism underlying the plot, the supporting characters are never more than WWII movie clichés. Further, the scanty budget doesn’t allow for the great sweep or big-action set pieces of a more ambitiously conceived film (although “Diplomacy” is certainly a huge improvement over the Thanksgiving Parade gasbag that was “Is Paris Burning?”). Whatever one may think of “The Tin Drum,” at least Schlöndorff approached that project with a certain undeniable ingenuity and a willingness to take risks. “Diplomacy” is much too conventional formally and dramatically, a depressing reminder of how much time its director has wasted in American film and television.
“Diplomacy,” directed by Volker Schlöndorff, opens Wednesday, Oct. 15 at Film Forum (209 W. Houston St.). For information, call (212) 727-8110 or go to www.filmforum.org.