There are only so many ways of filming a stage play, but only when it can become a fully-fledged motion picture can we say it's transcended its origins to make a successful transition. German veteran Volker Schlöndorff never makes us forget that Diplomacy is at heart a stage play, and a two-hander at that, even if he has successfully opened it up on the screen. But it is part and parcel of his approach to make sure we don't forget the stage origins of his latest film. It's even crucial for it to work as it should, because Diplomacy is a film about diplomacy as performance, as a play put on for the benefit of your interlocutor. An act designed and constructed to elicit a response, a result. So is Mr. Schlöndorff's film, in an exquisitely precise manner, pairing a sympathetic director with a natural affinity for the themes of its material with two virtuoso actors that thrive on each nuance and turn of phrase.
Revealed in the questioning "new German wave" of directors in the 1960s, Mr. Schlöndorff has always been fascinated both by moral choices and by the central event for modern Germany that was WWII. Both dovetail neatly within Cyril Gély's play: a fiction on the fateful night of August 24, 1944, when German general Dietrich von Cholititz (a coiled, weary Niels Arestrup) disobeyed Hitler's direct orders and kept Paris from being destroyed as the Allied troops approached. The premise is that Swedish consul Raoul Nordling (a suave André Dussollier) makes his way into the hotel where Choltitz's headquarters are installed and engages the general in a conversation of wits, honour, morality and civility over the fate of Paris.
Mr. Schlöndorff films it in widescreen as if two of the last representatives of a dying breed draw a verbal web of spells between each other, attempting to twist their decisions; a battle of perfect manners and gentlemanly chivalry where the fate of Paris is hanging on the right word spoken at the right moment in the right way - diplomacy as much skill as art, language as manipulation. It's a very French proposition - and Mr. Dussollier has always had a hypnotic, seductive way with words - but one that Mr. Schlöndorff enlarges to ask how much of politics is performance, or how much of performance is in fact wearing your heart on your sleeve.
In fairness, Diplomacy does go over territory other films have explored before, and it may occasionally look as a rather handsome prestige production tailor-made for Masterpiece Theatre evenings, but neither is it looking to break any new ground. The pleasure of watching two great actors responding to even the slightest inflection in each other's performance, and the intelligence and discretion with which Mr. Schlöndorff lays out their work, are a lesson in economy, and in adapting form to function, doing exactly what your film needs to work.
France, Germany 2014
Cast: Niels Arestrup, André Dussollier, Robert Stadlober, Burghart Klaußner, Charlie Nelson, Jean-Marc Roulet
Director Volker Schlöndorff; screenwriters Cyril Gély and Mr. Schlöndorff; based on the stage play by Mr. Gély Diplomatie; cinematographer Michel Amathieu (colour, widescreen); composer Jörg Lemberg; designer Jacques Rouxel; costumes Mirjam Muschel; editor Virginie Bruant; producers Marc de Barge, Frank le Wita, Sidonie Dumas and Francis Boespflug, Film Oblige, Gaumont and Blueprint Film, in co-production with ARTE France Cinéma, Westdeutscher Rundfunk and Südwestrundfunk
Screened February 12th 2014 (Berlinale 2014 Special Screening, Zoo Palast 1, Berlin)