Everyone knows how World War II ended (with the possible exception of some Texas Tech students who, judging by their answers to questions about history in a recent viral video, seem to have slept through high school). But one detail might not be common knowledge, at least for those too young to have seen “Is Paris Burning?”: On the eve of being driven out of occupied Paris by advancing Allied troops, the Nazis had rigged the city with explosives and were ready to push the plunger — destroying the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower and the bridges while killing many of the city’s inhabitants — as they left.
It wasn’t a strategic move, but rather a spiteful one. According to “Diplomacy,” a movie that dramatizes — spoiler alert — the Nazis’ decision not to carry out this insane plan, Hitler’s order to his fleeing troops was in retaliation for the Allies’ destruction of Berlin.
So there isn’t a lot of suspense here.
Nevertheless, “Diplomacy” manages to engage the mind, if not the adrenal gland. Set in the wee hours of Aug. 25, 1944, just preceding and following sunrise, the movie imagines a conversation between the Wehrmacht’s commander in Paris, Gen. Dietrich von Choltitz (Niels Arestrup) and a neutral Swedish diplomat, Raoul Nordling (André Dussollier), who has sneaked into the German’s office through a secret staircase in order to dissuade him from blowing up the city they both love (but which one feels duty-bound to obliterate).
Nordling’s arguments appeal to the general on logical, aesthetic, historical and personal grounds. The diplomat also cites the rules of war, which would typically preclude such an immoral action. But Choltitz offers a pretty good reason to go through with the plan: The Führer’s policy of “Sippenhaft” (or “kin liability”), which allowed for the arrest of family members of those who had defied him. Choltitz doesn’t really want to extinguish the City of Light — he thinks Hitler’s insane, for one thing — but he’s worried about the fate of his wife and children back in Germany if he doesn’t.
Based on a 2011 play by Frenchman Cyril Gély, who wrote the script with German director Volker Schlöndorff, “Diplomacy” is static and talky. With the exception of a few brief scenes that take us, momentarily, outside Choltitz’s office, the film is largely about two men debating each other in a room. And they’re not even that much in disagreement. Choltitz gets along with Nordling. And Nordling is polite, i.e., diplomatic, with his adversary, whom he treats with respect, even if he finds the selfishness of Choltitz’s reasoning obscene.
The movie is an intellectual puzzle, the outcome of which is never in doubt. Its minor thrills come not from not knowing what will happen, but from watching the cagey choreography of two acrobatic minds.
★ ★ ½
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains brief violence and some crude language. In French and German with subtitles. 85 minutes.