Remember the lady who hijacked the T.A.R.D.I.S. on Doctor Who? “You’ve got a time machine and I’ve got a gun,” she said. “What the hell, let’s kill Hitler.”
The Doctor (Matt Smith) later derided the idea as “going into the past to kill someone who’s already dead,” but there’s a very small and non-violent indie film variation of the killing-Hitler fantasy. Menno Meyjes’ 2002 Max was a prime what-if fantasy: rather than shooting Hitler, it’d be less noisy and more fun to hang around 1920s Viennese coffee shops with Mr. H (Noah Taylor), talking him out of the path he was going to take.
Volker Schlondorff’s Diplomacy isn’t actually about killing Hitler, but it’s the next best thing: it’s a similar drama of dissuasion. Its subject is the night of August 24-25 1944, when the Nazis were about to be routed out of Paris by the advancing Allies. It was at this point that Hitler ordered what would have been his second greatest crime, after the Holocaust: a reprisal demolition of the French capital. First all the bridges would be blown except for the Pont Neuf; the debris would clog and flood the Seine, which would inundate the low-lying eastern regions such as La Maraise. Then, in a radiating circle, the dynamiting of Les Invalides, Notre Dame and the Louvre—a few paintings would be removed first for Himmler’s collection, though the “Mona Lisa” wouldn’t be one of them. All of the railroad stations would be incinerated. All four legs of the Eiffel Tower were bound with explosives. Supervising the plan, an engineer comments, “If I’d been told as an architecture student that I’d be blowing up ParisÉ”
The drama is based on a French play—I’d say Schlondorff has had the same success with this kind of theater adaptation as Polanski has had lately. What really goes on in Diplomacy is a pair of old men talking through the predawn hours. One character is the phlegmatic governor of Occupied France, General von Choltitz (Niels Arestrup) who is supervising the demolition plans and preparing to give the order. The other is the Swedish diplomat Raoul Nordling (Andre Dusollier). Raised in Paris, Nordling knows his city so well he even knows Napoleon III’s secret passage in the Hotel Meuritz to visit von Choltitz’s chambers. (The Emperor used to visit a favorite actress there at night.)
What follows embodies the proverb “Salesmanship begins when the client says no.” Dusollier is a meek, white-haired gent, free of any insolence that could set off his host. He’s boiling with urgency and yet he’s chooses his words carefully. Orson Welles played Nordling in Is Paris Burning?, the forgotten Rene Clement blockbuster about this incident; Schlondorff hired an actor who looked as little like Welles as possible. Arestrup is a benign, recessive actor; humanely moist in the eyes, but with a harsh jaw full of square teeth. Portly Gert Froebe played the part in the Clement movie; Schlondorff went with an actor more of Trevor Howard’s style. Schlondorff (The Tin Drum) has an interesting view of these Prussian army types—when they click their heels, it’s not like the electric shock hit them. It’s more like a rapid flow of energy rolling up from the ankles, up the spine, slapping the back of the head. Almost Yogic. Impressive rather than robotic, for once.
Blacked-out Paris is half-visible from the windows—the familiar shapes of domes and arches and towers in the gloom. It’s surprising how much more imagination this modest film has of the possibility of such wanton destruction than the far more expensive Edge of Tomorrow hadÉand in that Tom Cruise movie, the aliens actually destroyed the city. Negotiation and eloquence outfoxes the foaming rage of Hitler. While Schlondorff gives only slight reference to the French Resistance’s brave efforts to stall the Nazi’s scheme, the film hits its mark—it’s a hopeful bit of history proving that artfulness can win out over brute force.
85 MIN.; NR