Film in review – “Diplomacy” (“Diplomatie”)

Diplomatie“Diplomacy” is a French film about the French’s love for Paris. But it’s told from an interesting perspective: Based on a play by Cyril Gely, it tells the story of how Paris was saved from near-total destruction because of the skilled diplomacy of one man. Who wasn’t even French.

It’s late August 1944. The Americans, having successfully landed at Normandy earlier in the summer, are now steaming through southern France and headed straight for Paris, which the Germans have occupied since the infamous collapse of the French Resistance in 1940 (it only took the Germans nine days from the start of their French invasion to occupy Paris). The Germans have already suffered defeat in Russia and are retreating through Poland, pounded by the Russians on the eastern front. It’s obvious that the tide has turned in favor of the Allies. The German high command is reeling from the failed attempt on Hitler’s life. Their Führer has become more detached from reality as he continues to issue orders for divisions that no longer exist and to make unrealistic demands on the ones that are still carrying on the fight.

General von Choltitz (Niels Arestrup), the German commander of Paris, gets up on the morning of August 25, 1944, feeling a deep pain in his chest. He has to call his orderly for his pills (presumably nitroglycerin) before he can even finish getting dressed. When he arrives at his office all is in chaos as the enemy approaches. Expatriate German civilians are openly evacuating. The relatively small occupation garrison is hastily preparing a defense, but everyone knows that the outcome is inevitable. When the lights go out briefly, Choltitz’ office is plunged into darkness. And when the lights come back on, Choltitz has an unexpected visitor in the room: the Swedish Ambassador, Raoul Nordling (Andre Dussollier).

It seems that the room that Choltitz chose as his personal office was, in fact, once used by Napoleon III to house his mistress. It was fitted with a secret staircase and a two-way mirror, which Nordling knew all about and used to his advantage. He appears in Choltitz’ office to try to dissuade him from ordering the munitions detail to proceed with the systematic destruction of Paris (yes, the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, 33 bridges over the Seine, even Notre Dame Cathedral).

Choltitz, of course, argues that he is only following orders. Nordling asks him at what point orders become nonsensical or even morally repugnant (later, of course, the Nazis who were tried for war crimes regarding the Holocaust would all utilize the defense that they were only following orders). Nordling pleads with the general to save Paris for the sake of the sheer beauty and exquisite uniqueness of it. But the general seems unimpressed by any of that, though he has, obviously, learned French, so he already demonstrates some sense of solidarity with those whom he governs.

When Nordling argues that the civilian population represents non-military targets, the general replies, understandably, that the Allies have been bombing Hamburg and Berlin and other German cities without regard for the civilian population there. When Nordling argues that the general needs to think of his family, the general shows him the directive signed by Hitler himself, that decreed any officer not following orders would suffer the arrest, imprisonment and execution of his family.

And yet, desperate times called for desperate measures. We all know that, ultimately, the Germans didn’t raze Paris as they were retreating from it. And it’s fascinating to consider this little fictionalized parlor drama as an articulate explanation.


RONALD P. SALFEN is the parish associate at Woodhaven Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.