The public record often masks a far murkier reality of compromise, desperation and half-truths. Throw the volatility of war into the mix and it's hard to imagine any one event actually lining up with its respective chapter in your high-school history book. Diplomacy—both the play written by Cyril Gely and its film adaptation directed by Volker Schlöndorff—attempts to reconcile this idea by going behind the scenes of a major transitional moment in World War II to reveal the human element and emotion that forms decision-making under duress.
On the night of Aug. 24, 1944, the Allied forces were making tracks for Nazi-occupied Paris after successfully landing at various points along Normandy and the French coastline. Facing multiple divisions of American and British troops primed for urban combat, the German army initiated plans to destroy the City of Lights by detonating key monuments (goodbye, Eiffel Tower) and strategic bridges, flooding the city and creating chaos. Gen. Dietrich von Choltitz (Niels Arestrup) was in charge of carrying out the orders, mandated through a maniacal decree written by an increasingly insane Adolf Hitler.
The early portion of Diplomacy sets the stage for Paris' downfall. Von Choltitz paces back and forth in a posh hotel room, discussing the mass demolition with his commanders and a French engineer who's being forced by his German captors to annihilate his own city. Here we see the art of Nazi strong-arm tactics used to secure loyalty and fear, a motif that will eventually be reversed later in the film. Occasionally, Schlöndorff cuts away to a pair of eyes watching the action from behind a secret passageway, adding a layer of intrigue.
Once von Choltitz is left alone, the voyeur reveals himself. Those expecting an assassin will be disappointed; Swedish Consul Raoul Nordling (André Dussollier) has come to reason with the German general, hoping sanity will prevail over blind fury. One of the key points of contention for the two men is the hierarchy of military command, the unquestioned purpose of an officer to follow through on the orders of his superiors. Nordling pokes holes in this mentality one heightened argument at a time.
"At some point, obedience ceases to be a duty," he tells von Choltitz, requesting that he look far into the future and realize the magnitude of this moment.
Much of Diplomacy tensely traverses the slippery slope dividing rationality and manipulation. With catastrophe right around the bend, Nordling attempts any angle he can to make von Choltitz see things from a grander perspective. What's most relevant is that the Swede (and, by turn, the audience) doesn't realize the German has already been second-guessing Hitler for weeks. A late reveal explains why von Choltitz hasn't acted on his conscience, connecting his character with the aforementioned French engineer.
Men of power experience helplessness throughout Diplomacy, a theme that confronts the traditional understanding of history as a clearly defined and linear process. Schlöndorff, whose inflammatory The Tin Drum made him a household name for cinephiles in 1979, has long been interested in the way human conflict both defines and subverts the Cliff's Notes of important moments in time like WWII. He's working on a much smaller scale with this film, but the end result carries similar weight.
This heft has everything to do with the actors. A staple of Alain Resnais' mythical cinema, Dussollier embodies suave misdirection, and Arestrup counters with an intense directness that hides a far more doubt-riddled presence. Together, they make Diplomacy—which screens for one week starting Friday, Dec. 5, at the Ken Cinema—a worthy and sharply observed drama interested in the way two desperate souls play a game of historical chicken, each hoping the other will blink first.