Dir: Volker Schlondorff. France-Germany. 2014. 85mins
A perfect showcase for the formidable talents of Niels Arestrup and Andre Dussolier, Volker Schlondorff’s adaptation of the hit Cyril Gely play, though it didn’t need the stagey atmosphere given the two actors are by far the most mesmerising attraction in this film.
In both actors, the man behind the role is always present and in evidence, everything that goes unsaid is conveyed in their conduct, and silences are as eloquent as any piece of dialogue.
Reprising the roles they had already performed on stage not that long ago, Arestrup plays Nazi General von Choltitz, who had been ordered to destroy Paris rather than hand it over to the Allies, and Dussolier is Swedish Consul Raoul Nordling who tries to dissuade him at the last moment from blowing up the city he adores.
Though Von Choltitz and Nordling were acquainted and the Swedish Consul had successfully negotiated with the Commander of the German Occupation Forces the exchange of German political prisoners for members of the French Resistance, the meeting portrayed in the play, and subsequently in the film, never did actually take place.
The fictitious encounter imagined by Gely takes place on the fateful night of August 24/25, 1944, as the last German soldiers are about to leave city, the main bridges and all the historical monuments are already mined and one word would have been enough to demolish them all. For Gely, this was just the right moment to confront the two characters, representing diametrically opposed conceptions of life.
On the one hand, the strict German military tradition that would never conceive disobeying the orders of one’s superiors, on the other hand, an open-minded, liberal, humanistic, cultivated diplomat from a neutral country who had been born and raised in Paris, and was willing to try every strategy in the book, fair of foul, to save it from destruction.
In the sophisticated duel of minds between the two of them, von Choltitz starts by holding the upper hand due to his authority as Supreme Commander of the German Forces. However, Nordling’s cards include not only the General’s concern for the fate of his family if he dares ignore Hitler’s specific instruction to burn the city he called “the whore”, but also the guilt the German carries on his shoulders for ordering the massacre of Jews on the Russian front and the destruction of Rotterdam in the West, all of it almost naturally justified in his eyes, because, like a good soldier, he was just “obeying orders”. But, Nordling insinuates, would he be willing now to go down in history also as the man responsible for erasing the City of Lights out of existence?
As directed by Schlondorff and played by Arestrup, Choltitz, though weakened by his own failing health and the imminent defeat of the Reich’s armies on every front, preserves his stiff, German, respect for military traditions but secretly hopes - though he never shows it - to be convinced and to defy the rules he has lived by all of his life. He even pretends to believe promises extended to him through the intermediary of the Consul that he intimately knows cannot be kept. Whether his treatment after the war (taken prisoner, he was released as early as 1947) was due to his refusing to execute Hitler’s order or not, is still a matter disputed by historians.
Dussolier’s Nordling, smooth, passionate, but soft talking, is waiting for the right moment and looking for the right crack in the General’s armor, and once he finds it, with the adroit touch of an experienced diplomat, he deftly drives his point home breaking down the formidable resistance built up by the age-old encrusted conventions of the military mind.
In both actors, the man behind the role is always present and in evidence, everything that goes unsaid is conveyed in their conduct, and silences are as eloquent as any piece of dialogue. Even if the arguments provided by Gely’s dialogue are not always that convincing, and though the street skirmishes, the shootings, the Allies marching into Paris and the defeated prisoners marching out, are not terribly original scenes, Arestrup and Dussolier always are.
Production companies: Film Oblige
International sales: Gaumont, www.gaumont.fr
Producers: Mark de Bayser, Frank Le Witta
Executive producer: Jean-Cristophe Cardineau
Screenplay: Cyril Gely, Volker Schloendorff, based on Cyril Gely’s play
Cinematography: Michel Amathieu
Editor: Virgine Bruant
Production designer: Jacques Rouxel
Music: Jorg Lemberg
Main cast: Niels Arestrup, Andre Dussolier, Burghart Klausner, Robert Stadtlober, Charllie Nelson, Jacques Lanvin