Diplomacy Dir. Volker Schlondorff

[Zeitgeist Films; 2014]

Styles: drama
Others: The Tin Drum

Probably the most impressive thing about Volker Schlondorff — apart from his name, which sounds like all the cream falling off a huge layer cake — is his staying power. Like fellow New Wavers Werner Herzog or Wim Wenders, he continues to make films into his dotage, past the point where it’s financially practical or physically comfortable to do so. Unlike them, none of those films have really left much of an impact. He may have bagged a Palme d’Or and an Oscar for his adaptation of The Tin Drum, but it’s not especially well remembered nowadays, while his take on The Handmaid’s Tale looks only a little better than a competent Syfy Channel production.

As a director he displays impeccable restraint and reserve, but it hasn’t resulted in anything particularly thrilling. Diplomacy, his latest, is in much the same line. Fans of old men acting at each other in a room will probably enjoy it though.

Adapted from a play, Diplomacy retells the true story of the last days of Nazi-occupied Paris, where German General Choltitz (Niels Arestrup) has been tasked with the utter annihilation of the city. Much to his surprise, he faces spirited resistance from a mild-mannered Swedish diplomat, Nordling (Andre Dussollier). With only hours till the order has to be executed, Nordling pulls out all the tricks of his trade- flattery, guilt-tripping, bald-faced lying- to persuade the General against the destruction of his adopted city.

Effectively a two-hander, the tension between these characters propels the film through a slender hour and twenty minutes. It becomes apparent that Schlondorff isn’t much of a visual stylist, but in casting Arestrup (hulking, porcine) and Dussollier (spry, mischievous) he immediately sells the idea that it might be impossible for these men to exist in the same world, never mind the same room.

Their depictions of these two men, bitterly aware of the responsibilities and regrets that accrue over the course of a lifetime, lend Diplomacy any weight that it has. You can see anxiety and weariness in Arestrup’s hooded brow, his burgeoning paunch — it’s an affecting performance because it totally lacks vanity. Dussollier’s Nordling is, in contrast, a more enigmatic figure, although we detect in his betrayal of Choltitz a man unable to reconcile himself to the harsh realities of diplomacy, even after a lifetime of practicing it.

Nordling is the less compelling character, probably because he’s the surrogate for Schlondorff. Like the director, he’s an observer, someone who lives by reading and manipulation multiple sources of information all in the same moment. Alas, in Schlondorff’s case, he isn’t quite as adept as his alter ego. He shoots a lovely room, but when the narrative strays from it, as in the sub-plot involving the hotel staff, the film is no more remarkable than any middle-of-the-road TV drama. It’s nicely lit and full of the right period details, but the only thing that communicates the urgency and horror of war is the central tension between Arestrup and Dussollier.

Worse, though, is when Schlondorff, clearly working with a miniscule budget, uses archive footage of tanks rolling through Paris to pad out the climax. Which is fine, if what you’re shooting is a cinéma-vérité-style account of the French Resistance, and not a filmed re-enactment of a play with some nice sets. The failure to employ a consistent visual grammar — which is linked to the failure to employ a properly filmic grammar in the first place — throws the whole enterprise into question(s). Why transpose theater to film, if the only aspect you can get right is the more conventionally theatrical part of it? And why attempt to broaden the scope when you don’t have the skill (or the funds) to do it decently?

The answer is, you probably shouldn’t. With Arestrup and Dussollier it almost works, and it’s nice that Schlondorff allows them the room to spark off each other. Unfortunately, he doesn’t leave much room for himself. He has an impressive name, does Volker, but after 75 years and film experience stretching back to the 50s, not a great deal to back it up with. Certainly not this effort at Diplomacy, anyway.

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