In the ‘70s heyday of New German Cinema, it was easy to underrate Volker Schlöndorff. Compared to the genius of Rainer Werner Fassbinder or the radical cinema of Werner Schroeter and Harun Farocki, his films seemed middle-of-the-road and tepidly liberal. When the Oscars gave him their seal of approval for his 1979 adaptation of Günter Grass’ novel “The Tin Drum,” he only seemed more milquetoast.
Yet he’s aged better than I would’ve imagined 30 years ago. Since Fassbinder, Schroeter, and Farocki have all passed away, Werner Herzog seems to be the only New German Cinema director still operating at full force. Late Schlöndorff films like “The Legend of Rita” and now “Diplomacy” are small-scale but genuine triumphs.
The current generation of acclaimed German filmmakers called the Berlin School are known for their avoidance of period pieces. The directors of New German Cinema, whose parents could have been Nazis and who were children during World War II, wanted to deal directly with the war and the inheritance of fascism. This led to great films, like Fassbinder’s historical saga “The Marriage of Maria Braun,” but it also led to the attitude that most German cinema should address this poisoned legacy. The ultimate result was the likes of “Downfall,” Oliver Hirschbiegel’s ugly and oddly nostalgic film most memorable for the memes it spawned on YouTube, in which a subtitled Hitler rants about various subjects.
“Diplomacy” takes place in one all-day talk session starting at dawn on August 25, 1944. While the Allies threatened to take Paris in the summer of that year, Hitler gave orders that the city should not fall into their hands. If it did, it should be bombed to pieces, in revenge for the Allied bombing of German cities. General Dietrich von Choltitz (Niels Arestrup) is in charge of this plan, which is well underway. Then, Swedish Consul General Raoul Nordling (Andr_ Dussollier) drops by his hotel suite and launches into a conversation ultimately aimed at talking him out of it.
“Diplomacy” is hipper than it initially seems. Received wisdom among leftist cinephiles holds that all war films are pro-war (unless, perhaps, they were made by Samuel Fuller or Stanley Kubrick) and that the Holocaust should not be fictionalized. Schlöndorff, working off a play by Cyril Gély (the two wrote the script together), has made a war film that’s almost all talk, despite a small dash of violence. It touches glancingly on the Holocaust, but the fact that Nordling’s wife is Jewish becomes an important narrative point.
“Diplomacy” feels theatrical, but it was shot in Cinemascope and aims for a minimalist approach. What might seem like excess staginess in a lesser director’s hands becomes excitingly stripped-down here, especially with canny use of a moving camera on a small set, where lighting keeps flickering due to power outages. It often evokes Frank Pierson’s made-for-HBO film “Conspiracy,” in which a group of Nazi officers have a polite meal and plan the Holocaust over dinner and drinks. “Conspiracy” is far more disturbing than many films that depict the horrors of war more directly.
Arestrup and Dussollier aren’t the only actors in “Diplomacy,” but they occupy 90 percent of the film’s running time. Almost no women appear in the film, which I suppose makes sense given the military setting. The two men are evenly matched. They’re as close to being friends as two people on opposite sides of a conflict can be. They may not be upper class in the sense of the American “one percent,” but they share an aristocratic mindset. Neither man is French, but they revere French culture, even if von Choltitz is willing to blow up Paris to make a point. They live in a time when the French language was an international lingua franca the way English is now.
Both actors are elderly men, but Arestrup seems more ravaged by age than Dussollier. To some extent, this is a function of the plot: von Choltitz suffers asthma attacks several times and has to reach for his medication.
Now that Schlöndorff stands apart from the context of New German Cinema, it’s easier to see his modest but genuine virtues. Fassbinder’s melodramas combined radical and populist elements, while Schlöndorff’s ‘70s films, like “The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum,” went straight for liberal values. It was easier to scoff at those values, represented here by Nordling, 40 years ago, but in a more conservative climate, the quiet merits of Schlöndorff’s cinema seem all the more real.
DIPLOMACY | Directed by Volker Schlöndorff | Zeitgeist Films | In French and German with English subtitles | Opens Oct. 15 | Film Forum, 209 W. Houston St. | filmforum.org