"Brennt Paris?" are the words Adolf Hitler supposedly screamed into a telephone during the wee hours of Aug. 25, 1944. Occupied Paris was on the verge of liberation, and its Nazi governor, Gen. Dietrich von Choltitz, was under orders to reduce every meaningful monument to rubble. We know it never happened, but exactly why remains a question.
Hitler's phrase became the title of a 1966 film by René Clément, "Is Paris Burning?," a bloated epic in which Orson Welles played Raoul Nordling, the Swedish diplomat who convinced von Choltitz (Gert Fröbe) to spare the city. The pivotal scene is over in a trice: a few wheedling words spoken to a military man with a conscience, and all ends well.
"Diplomacy," the latest film by German director Volker Schlöndorff (1979's Oscar-winning "The Tin Drum"), is a stripped-down but much deeper dive into that conversation. Co-written by Schlöndorff and Cyril Gely (from his play of the same name), "Diplomacy" is set almost entirely in a single suite of the Hotel Meurice, the grand dame hotel that served as Nazi headquarters, and focuses primarily on two superb actors, Niels Arestrup (2010's "A Prophet") as von Choltitz and André Dussollier (this year's "Life of Riley") as Nordling. In this tense, gripping account, the fate of Paris seems anything but guaranteed.
That's because von Choltitz initially seems so intractable, remorseless and committed to his führer's cause. Nordling's pretty words about preserving the Louvre and the Champs-Élysées for future generations fall on deaf ears. We know Nordling must have other tricks up his sleeve, but what? Dussollier plays the diplomat beautifully as a double-dealer serving a noble cause.
France has grudgingly acknowledged von Choltitz as its savior, but Schlöndorff (who wrote the film's script at his part-time home in Amagansett), clearly sides with Nordling. The film ends with a dedication that recalls the Dayton Peace Accords of 1995: "To my friend Richard Holbrooke, whose diplomacy ended another war."