It's an unimaginably chilling sequence of events. First, 33 bridges over the Seine were to be detonated. Followed by Notre Dame, the Louvre, the Opera, and then, with four submarine torpedoes attached to each leg, the Eiffel Tower. Paris as we know it was to be destroyed.
This is not some fantastic science-fiction scenario — it was actually Adolf Hitler's command to his occupying German troops should the evacuation of the city be necessary. Only the decision of the Wehrmacht commander of Paris, Gen. Dietrich von Choltitz, to disobey a direct order kept it from happening.
Historians argue to this day as to what influenced the general to act as he did, and one admittedly fictionalized scenario is faultlessly dramatized by veteran German director Volker Schlöndorff (the Oscar-winning "Tin Drum") and two of France's best actors in "Diplomacy."
Adapted by Schlöndorff and Cyril Gely from the latter's successful French play, "Diplomacy" imagines an all-night conversation in the Hôtel Meurice on Aug. 24-25, 1944, between the general (Niels Arestrup) and Swedish Consul Raoul Nordling (André Dussollier), who just a few days before had negotiated an exchange of prisoners with the military man.
Given that the outcome of this extended talk is anything but a secret, it's quite a triumph for "Diplomacy" in general and Schlöndorff's pinpoint filmmaking in particular to involve us as thoroughly as it does in the ebb and flow of their compelling conversation.
The director shrewdly starts the film with newsreel footage detailing Germany's savage destruction of Poland's capital, Warsaw. Before a single word of dialogue is spoken, we see not only what a major European capital looks like obliterated but also that the Germans were capable of such an act.
Both Arestrup, best known as the Corsican prison gang leader in "A Prophet," and Dussollier, an Alain Resnais regular, previously played these parts in the Paris stage production, and that experience has enabled them to inhabit their roles with a lived-in familiarity.
It's the general who is introduced first, up at 4 a.m. because sleep is impossible with the Allied advance into Paris only hours away. One of his first orders of business is to hear details of the plan to destroy the city, a priority given Hitler's feeling that it was "unacceptable" for Paris to thrive if Berlin was to be destroyed.
Always a commanding actor, Arestrup takes naturally to being a powerful general, a third-generation professional soldier and an individual of formidable hauteur. Playing someone whose entire life has been dedicated to doing his duty and obeying orders without question, Arestrup makes us incontestably believe that his character would give the command to destroy Paris and never look back.
Dussolier's role is almost by definition a more slippery part to grasp. "I am a diplomat, I love listening at doors," he tells the general after he has used clandestine means to sneak into his suite. The consul has to simultaneously respect the military man and stand up to him, sympathize with his reasons and get him to change his mind. It is far from an easy task.
Though "Diplomacy" wanders outside the hotel suite from time to time, the heart of the drama remains inside its walls, and the reason it never ceases to compel is not only the skill of the actors but also the kind of provocative and thoughtful dialogue that characterizes intellectual combat of a high order.
Back and forth the men argue with passion and conviction, trading arguments like championship jabs. If the general says, "I have my orders, I never question my orders," the consul counters, "What if an order is absurd?" If the consul asks "Why do you insist on destroying this city?," the general replies, "The city is ours to do with as we please," and asks why Paris' residents should be valued in a way that the Allies did not value Hamburg's when they intensively bombed that metropolis.
Orchestrating it all beautifully is veteran director Schlöndorff, a polished, thoughtful filmmaker who adds his own genuine love of Paris (he was an assistant director to both Louis Malle and Jean-Pierre Melville) to his command of the verbal drama. This story resonates deeply with him, and he has seen to it that the same thing happens with us.
MPAA rating: None
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes.
Playing: In limited release.