It seems impossible that a film as small and intimate as the two-character drama Diplomacy could say so much about the Nazi ethos during World War II.
Yet German master filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff (The Tin Drum, Swann in Love) achieves just that in his latest film, a fact-based account of the final hours before the Allies liberated Paris from German occupation on Aug. 25, 1944.
Adapted from French playwright Cyril Gély's 2011 play, Diplomacy isn't a conventional war movie. Unlike René Clément's 1966 classic Is Paris Burning?, it doesn't depict any actual battles.
It recounts a personal battle of wits between two men, Paris' iron-willed German governor, Gen. Dietrich von Choltitz (Niels Arestrup), and Swedish diplomat Raoul Nordling (André Dussollier).
The stakes are high: Hitler has ordered Choltitz not to surrender Paris without first razing the city. The general's men already have placed explosives at every bridge and major monument in the city, including the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre.
All that remains is for Choltitz to give the order.
That's when a most unwelcome guest, Nordling, uses a secret staircase to slip into the general's suite at the Hotel Le Meurice. Nordling isn't there to kill Choltitz, he tells the German, because he views the general as the only man who can save Paris from an apocalypse.
Appealing to the general's humanity, Nordling begs him to disobey Hitler's absurd order.
Arestrup and Dussollier are mesmerizing as they attack and parry, argue and counterargue. They reminisce about their lives before the war and wax poetic about their families - then engage in battle again.
We know how the story ends: Nordling persuades Choltitz to back down. Yet, the film somehow maintains a razor-sharp sense of suspense throughout. And it ends with a delicious plot twist that makes one rethink Nordling's moral superiority.
Diplomacy ***1/2 (out of four stars)
Directed by Volker Schlöndorff. With André Dussollier, Niels Arestrup, Robert Stadlober, Burghart Klaussner. Distributed by Zeitgeist Films. With subtitles.
Running time: 1 hour, 25 mins.
Parent's guide: No MPAA rating (shocking subject matter, violence).
Playing at: Ritz at the Bourse.