Film review of the German drama starring Niels Arestrup and Andre Dussollier about a Nazi plan to destroy key locations in Paris before their retreat from the city, during the last days of WWII.
Director: Volker Schlondorff. Gaumont/Film Oblige et al (12a).
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Cast & credits
Producer: Marc de Bayser, Frank Le Wita.
Writer: Cyril Gely, Volker Schlondorff.
Camera: Michel Amathieu.
Music: Jorg Lemberg.
Sets: Jacques Rouxel.
Andre Dussollier, Niels Arestrup, Burghart Klaussner, Robert Stadlober, Charlie Nelson, Jean-Marc Roulet, Stefan Wilkening, Thomas Arnold.
Paris, 1944: as Allied forces encroach closer on the French capital, the occupying Nazi force led by Governor Dietrich von Choltitz (Arestrup) prepares to leave the city, but only after they have razed key buildings, bridges and even entire districts to the ground, killing hundreds of thousands of French citizens in the process. Making a last ditch attempt to dissuade him is Swedish consul Raul Nordling (Dussollier) who attempts to persuade the German to spare the city, it’s precious architecture, culture and people through the art of diplomatic and conciliatory conversation.
Conversation is a battle-ground just as dangerous, gruelling, manipulative or forceful as serving on the front-line in this World War II drama that imagines a cerebral battle of wills that ensued as Paris was a mere flick of a button away from almost total destruction during the last gasps of the war.
Only films based on plays display such ardent, fetishistic devotion to the spoken word.
This film is co-adapted by Gely from his own play and co-writer/director Schlondorff (a titan of the New German Cinema of the 1960’s and 1970’s) stubbornly refuses to open his film out until right toward the very end, concentrating his brief screen time instead on the wily and witty exchanges between his two main characters (at 84 minutes long it must also be a strong contender for one of the shortest feature length films of recent years). In fact, they are more or less the only people on screen for the majority of the film.
The focus of this WWII film is not the infamous battlegrounds or political centres of America, Britain or the Far East, but a hotel room in Paris, forebodingly seen during the evening and early hours of the morning, as if a not-so-gay Paris waits in darkness for its fate to be elucidated.
Schlondorff and Gely are not interested in the power-play between the titans of WWII, but instead let their pens and our ears linger on the delicate, devastating dance of words between two largely forgotten, cerebral old codgers.
As daylight encroaches (ironically, with menace) on the two men, Arestrup, previously the aggressor in the conversation, slowly deteriorates as his morality and sense of loyalty and duty are duly pricked by his counterpart and he realises he must disregard his orders, and very probably the lives of his family, and save the wonder that is Paris.
These two performers are perfectly balanced. When we first see Arestrup, he dispassionately runs through the order to destroy the capital with a professional, unemotional air. The estimation of the casualties, he is informed, is around 1.5 million. “That’s not too bad” is the blunt reaction.
He is watched, unseen, from behind a two-way mirror, by Dussollier, who remains in the shadows, ear-wigging as we do on this historical behind-the-scenes drama.
Arestup’s poker face throughout the film is a commendable addition. Although we all know what the outcome of this discussion will be, his inscrutability causes you to question whether he will hit the detonate button after all.
He is flattered, cajoled and wound-up in clever style by Dussollier, a man who could make a hugely successful second career as an ice salesman to Eskimo communities during the depths of winter. He is a man who only has the skilful use of language to save his beloved city, and balls of brass to put his mouth where his devotion lies.
Schlondorff’s decision to focus on the words and not the deeds of these two men results in a uniquely charged interaction, claustrophobic despite the enormity of the single room set. It is a rewarding encounter for the characters and the audience. Funnily enough, despite the reduced screen time, the film does actually feel much longer.