Directed by: Volker Schlöndorf. Written by: Cyril Gely (playwrite), Schlöndorf (screenplay edits)
Let’s start with the basics; Diplomacy is a film adaptation of a play based on historical events. With defeat imminent for the Nazis, Hitler has concocted a final, unthinkable plot to be carried out in occupied Paris. Hitler, however, is not a character in the film. Instead the story centres around Nazi General Dietrich von Choltitz, who is set to carry out Hitler’s orders, and a Swedish diplomat, Raoul Nordling, bent on stopping them. The film’s title is not subtle metaphor—the story is a plea for belief in diplomacy and a tribute to the Swedish diplomat’s negotiating skills.
Diplomacy, as a WWII film, had it works cut out for it. Few governments/warring parties are as universally despised as Hitler and Nazi Germany. Artists who depict WWII and its ensuing tragedies are thus challenged to make statements that go beyond what everybody knows—that war is bad, that WWII was particularly bad, and that that particularly badness stemmed from Hitler’s distinctly-intentional genocide. At times, Diplomacy feels like it cannot meet the high bar that WWII films must overcome. The diplomat tells the general that senseless killing and Nazism are wrong. “How profound!” many audiences will think sarcastically.
Yet even in these moments of weakness, Diplomacy begins to reveal its strength. I thought of the moments I’ve spent watching Fox News, exasperated by its ideological bias. I also thought of a scene in the comi-tragic TV show Atlanta, when Earn (Donald Glover) an unemployed, bankrupt father tries to order a kids meal at a restaurant (due to his financial situation), and is refused. A voice was screaming in my head as I watched that scene; why couldn’t some character have just told the cashier to be decent, and prioritize Earn’s right to eat over enforcing a fast food chain’s bureaucratic rules!? Why couldn’t someone have told the Fox News broadcasters to stop spewing bullshit about universal health care being a tyrannical disaster? Diplomacy gives us a character who does just that. He calmly stares a Nazi in the face and tells him to act conscientiously. It sounds absurd, but I came to realize it’s what I wanted to see, and perhaps what many will want to see.
Diplomacy not only imagines a world in which a character tells a Nazi to be decent…it imagines a world in which the tactic works. The film should be praised for this political work alone. Far too often, as news of international conflict is brought before the public, many will think “the enemy” cannot be reasoned with: that the enemy simply enjoys its brutality (or alleged brutality) too much. Diplomacy reminds viewers that aversion to killing is a near universal human trait, and therefore, diplomatic solutions should never be written off as utopian/hopeless.
One of the film’s great lines comes when the Swedish diplomat references the story of Isaac and Abraham, begging the Nazi general not to follow the orders of a “God” that would have him kill his “son” (the city of Paris). While the film is based on true events (limiting its ability for creative experimentation), and while the direction its plot takes is ultimately endearing, the delivery of this line still left me questioning Diplomacy’s playwright. What if, I pondered, the general and not the diplomat had raised the Isaac and Abraham comparison? The diplomat raises this argument simply so that he can rebut it. By contrast, if the general had raised the argument, surely he would have fleshed it out. The point he would be making is that as a humble servant of “God” (Hitler, in this case) he was in no position to question the morality of his master. Abraham did not want to kill Isaac, but was prepared to do so to follow orders. Similarly, the general did not want to follow Hitler’s orders but shows a firm preparedness to do so regardless.
This kind of “following orders” character is also represented in James Cameron’s Avatar through the figure of Col. Miles Quaritch. Quaritch is simultaneously a kindly, father figure, and someone willing to mercilessly kill all those who stand in his way (including his former pupil) when duty calls.
Like Quaritch’s, the general’s conduct represents an inherent flaw of many militaries: their internal codes of honour often come into conflict with more fundamental rules of morality. A good soldier loyally follows the orders of commanding officers and political officials. A good person doesn’t commit acts of genocide. Needless to say, in the context of Nazi Germany (which is just one example), these two coders were at odds.
A common refrain about WWII is the question: why didn’t good people stand up to Hitler? With its “Abraham and Isaac” line, Diplomacy hints at one of the answers: military (and police) ethics can mean not questioning even the atrocious orders of one’s leaders. Diplomacy, however, doesn’t end up taking this “Abraham and Isaac” approach very far. Perhaps this is because the question and answer may not prove satisfying to those who want to see the Nazis presented as a distinctly evil. Perhaps some would find it tasteless to see an explanation proposed for Nazi brutality that could also be applied to explain atrocities committed by western liberal democracies.
That digression aside, Diplomacy should be commended as a work that convincingly retells a historic episode to promote a message of peace. It is mostly well written, even if at times the unambiguous moral superiority of the diplomat can cause the writing to feel predictable. Diplomacy is the act of thinking through what may seem like hopeless situations and getting another to think in a similar way. By giving viewers a chance to see this kind of thinking in action, as well as allowing them space to imagine how it could go differently, Diplomacy has achieved its important moral end.