Volker Schlöndorff's film “Diplomacy,” adapted from Cyril Gely's stage play, imagines one of history's most fateful conversations. The film takes place in the wee hours between August 24 and 25, 1944, as general Dietrich von Choltitz, the governor of occupied Paris, prepares to carry out Adolf Hitler's order to lay waste to the city. In his headquarters at the Hotel Meurice, the general is visited by a Swedish diplomat, Raoul Nordling, who is determined to keep Paris from becoming another Stalingrad. “Diplomacy,” which opens Friday at the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington, stars Niels Arestrup as von Choltitz and André Dussollier as Nordling.
“Diplomacy” is the latest of several World War II films by Schlöndorff, a German director best known for “The Tin Drum,” his 1979 Oscar-winning adaptation of Gunter Grass' novel. Schlöndorff, 75, lives part-time in Amagansett, a little-publicized fact that helped “Diplomacy” earn a spot at the 22nd Hamptons International Film Festival earlier this month. During the festival, the filmmaker spoke with Newsday's Rafer Guzmán. Following is an edited version of their conversation.
Newsday: “Diplomacy” looks and feels very authentic. Did you shoot it at the actual Hotel Meurice?
Volker Schlöndorff: The apartment is of course a studio. But the entrance hall, even the dining room, is at the Hotel Meurice. They were finally cooperative. For years, they were ashamed of that side of their past. They said, “Look, our clients don't want to know that this was the headquarters of the German general.” But I said to think of it another way. You could put up a plaque that said, “This is where Paris was saved.” Ultimately, that convinced the manager. And that's what they're doing now.
Von Choltitz isn't a major figure in America's version of World War II history. What about in Europe?
He's not well-liked by the French, and he's totally unknown in Germany. The barman [at the Hotel Meurice], now 95, who they brought back to meet with me, he remembered that in the mid-'50s, he saw a gentleman coming in through the revolving door and looking around, wearing a coat and hat. He recognized him, and went over to offer him a drink. The man was visibly embarrassed, and said, “No, Gaston, thank you very much. I just wanted to have a look.” He went straight to the door, tipped his hat and vanished.
There are a lot of theories about exactly why von Choltitz made his decision. I suppose only he really knows.
His autobiography is completely useless. It's embarrassingly self-congratulatory.
Is that the book where he says he disobeyed the order because he thought Hitler had gone insane?
Yes, exactly, “Hitler was insane.” I don't buy that. He came to Paris, and he set everything into motion for the destruction of Paris. He even ordered a huge cannon which he had used in Sebastopol, the biggest gun that was available at the time. And all this a week prior to the end. My reading is simply that he ran out of time, and maybe did so on purpose. That is the most favorable reading I can give him.
What drew you to this story?
I have a 22-year-old daughter, and she always asks me, “Why do you do another World War II story, aren't you fed up with it?” But the major part of my childhood memories have to do with the Second World War -- it's part of my history. Also, in war times, people are put into such extreme situations that it simply makes for good drama. In 100 years, I'm convinced, there will still be good World War II stories.
Tell me about the film's closing dedication to Richard Holbrooke.
I had worked with Richard Holbrooke on a film of his book "To End a War.” It was about his dealings with Miloševi? to arrive at the Dayton agreement. They had the same kind of villain as von Choltitz -- much more of a villain, Miloševi?! And he was this ruthless diplomat who would use all means. It was fascinating, but [the film] was ultimately turned down. People said, "Nobody cares about Yugoslavia." When it's about the destruction of Paris, everybody cares!
When the producer sent the play to me, I had never seen it on stage. I read it, and it reminded me immediately of [Holbrooke]. It's words against weapons.
Imagine my surprise to open the Hamptons film festival guide and find Volker Schlöndorff in the "Views From Long Island” section.
I'm in Amagansett, a little more than five years now. It's like a cabin in the dunes, and I come for writing in the winter and sometimes in the summer. But I'm not a resident, I spend two months a year here. I wrote the screenplay for this movie, as well as the previous one ["Calm at Sea"] and for the next movie, all three I wrote here. I don't know anybody, nobody knows me, I can just do my work. Now I've blown my cover!
The next movie? Can you talk about it?
It's called “Montauk Revisited.” I wrote it with an Irish novelist, Colm Tóibín. It's about former lovers who by chance meet again in Paris. He's German, she's American. And after many years, they go back for a winter season in Montauk. I have the lead: Ralph Fiennes. I have an equally talented name for the lady, but I promised her not to mention it. You'll love her, though, I promise.