Set in 1944 Paris, Diplomacy, directed by Volker Schlöndorff, details a fascinating cat and mouse mind game played out between a German general and a Swedish consul
, directed by Volker Schlöndorff, details a fascinating cat and mouse mind game played out between a German general and a Swedish consul

I spent a good portion of my teens and 20s playing the World War I-set board game ‘Diplomacy’. Though marketed to the war games crowd, ‘Diplomacy’ was much more than an opportunity to play ‘armchair general’: players had to negotiate agreements with other participants (each representing one of the European powers) in order to strategize, gain the upper hand, and win the game. Designed for two to seven players, ‘Diplomacy’ was always more fun with a larger crew, and was frequently an all-day affair.

In Volker Schlöndorff’s new film Diplomatie (Diplomacy, opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Oct. 24) there are only two players — but that doesn’t mean it’s by any means boring or uneventful. Set in 1944 Paris, the film details a fascinating cat and mouse mind game played out between a German general and a Swedish consul.

The German is Dietrich von Choltitz (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’s Niels Arestrup), the General commanding all Nazi forces occupying Paris in the weeks after the Allied invasion of Normandy. Von Choltitz has orders from the very top to destroy the city before it can be liberated; with the help of reluctant French engineer Lanvin (Jean-Marc Roulot) his troops have wired all the bridges and landmarks of the city, including the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower, with tons of explosives.

With the Allies only hours from the City of Light, the end seems to be nigh — but the general hasn’t anticipated the intercession of Raoul Nordling (André Dussollier), the Paris-born representative of Sweden’s neutral government. Having got wind of von Choltitz’s plans, Nordling has – via a handy hidden staircase constructed by Napoleon III – dropped by to talk some sense into the General.

What follows is the stagiest film since Roman Polanski’s 2011 feature Carnage: an hour plus of two men talking, frequently at cross-purposes, as one tries to convince the other that he’s about to make a terrible mistake (and the other claims that, due to the recently passed sippenhaft law, he has no choice). There’s little suspense – anyone who knows the basics of World War II history knows how the story ends – but this is one of those times when the journey, not the destination, provides all the value.

Bearing in mind that the discussion depicted and von Choltitz’s ultimate decision-making process are highly speculative (historians have never decided exactly what happened or why, though the General himself wasn’t shy about claiming he’d disobeyed Hitler’s direct orders), Diplomacy (adapted for the screen by playwright Cyril Gely) certainly provides a plausible answer to the question: why isn’t Paris burning?

Now in his 70s, director Schlöndorff — like his septuagenarian colleague Werner Herzog — is still creating quality work (if not quite at Herzog’s frenetic pace). Diplomacy may not be in the same league as his earlier triumphs The Lost Honor of Katherina Blum (1975) or The Tin Drum (1979), but it’s a confident statement from one of Germany’s greatest living filmmakers.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...