Q&A: Volker Schlöndorff on the Tense Negotiations of ‘Diplomacy’

Towards the end of World War II, General Dietrick von Choltitz, the governor of Nazi-occupied Paris, receives an order to destroy the city if the Nazis lose it to Allied forces. With explosives strapped to bridges and landmarks, the General is prepared to carry out this atrocity when Swedish Consul General Raoul Nordling appears in his office and pleads with him to abandon the plan. Adapted from the stage and directed by legendary German filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff (The Tin Drum), Diplomacy is deeply connected with its moment in history, yet resounds with timeliness in its study of ideologies and the necessary search for common ground.


Please describe Diplomacy in your own words.

Volker Schlöndorff: The meeting we filmed did not actually take place. As a matter of fact, Nordling and Choltitz did meet several times, once just a few days prior to August 24, at the Meurice Hotel and at the Kommandantur to negotiate an exchange of German political prisoners in return for French Resistance prisoners. And the meeting worked out very well. On the other hand, between August 20 and 24, the two men had agreed to a sort of cease-fire. Resistance fighters had managed to invade the Paris police general headquarters, but they feared that the Germans were going to retaliate since they still had troops on the ground. The consul and the general negotiated a truce so that the Germans might travel through Paris without running into ambush attacks and the Resistance fighters might reorganize themselves. During the meeting there was also talk of the beauty of Paris and the danger of its impending destruction.

There exist biographies of the two men, written in the 1950s. As they include personal testimonies where each man seeks to make his role look good or in the case of the general to clear his own name, one has to take them with a grain of salt.

What inspired you to tell this particular story?

VS: War places men in extreme situations and brings out the best and worst in humanity. These days a conflict between France and Germany is so unthinkable that I found it interesting to recall the past relationships between our two countries. If, God forbid, Paris had been razed, I doubt that the Franco-German bond would have formed or that Europe would have pulled through. Besides, what appealed to me was the opportunity to pay tribute to Paris. I’ve hung around the city since I was 17, and I know each and every bridge and monument—I think that during all those years when I was assistant director to Louis Malle and Jean-Pierre Melville I explored more streets than a Paris cab driver! Besides, I love Paris, and being asked 50 years later to celebrate its survival was a real privilege.

How are the challenges of adapting a play (Diplomacy) different from adapting a novel (which you did with The Tin Drum)?

VS: The play offers a clear structure for a 90-minute entertainment; for a huge novel like The Tin Drum you have to invent both a structure and a point of view from which to tell the story—two huge challenges. So Diplomacy was a piece of cake.

In this instance, you collaborated with the playwright on the screenplay; how did that process work? Did you have similar visions from the start?

VS: I like to work with the original writers, be they novelists or playwrights. Fiction plays quite a big part in the film. This is what most interested me. However, one element is historical, and Cyril Gély used it as a starting point: the two men did know each other and had talked about the ultimate fate of Paris. That was why the Allies made use of the consul, asking him to bring a letter to the general, probably written by General Leclerc, which included a proposal to Von Choltitz to surrender and liberate the city without destroying it. As is shown in the film, the general allegedly rejected the ultimatum.

We based the narrative on those few historical facts and tried to figure out the German general’s state of mind. The room with a secret passage and a hidden staircase through which the mistress of Napoleon III supposedly entered the hotel is a pure invention. I liked the light comedy tone and the humorous dialogue. The confined space points to a fictionalized situation. We didn’t intend to be true to facts. However, onscreen as opposed to onstage, one needs a point of view, one needs to know who is telling the story and why he or she is telling it. In this case it could only be the consul. That’s why we started with him walking in the streets of Paris at night, haunted by the images of the destruction of Warsaw and obsessed by a nagging question: how to talk the general out of carrying out the dismal order given by Hitler the day before. And our narrative perspective was that of the consul who rounds up the story when he leaves with the doorman after betraying the general in order to save Paris. Without any second thoughts. If Paris is in jeopardy, anything goes.

The film relies mostly on the two main actors and their conversation over the course of one night. How did you and the actors prepare for the film? Do you do many rehearsals, as in theatre, or do you allow for improvisation on set?

VS: They had done it 300 times on stage, an enormous advantage as for the knowledge of their characters, yet a terrible danger because of the routine setting in, with the threat to end up with a simple reproduction, which the camera detects immediately and the audience falls asleep. So, as for The Death of a Salesman, we had to do even more rehearsals, to discover the scenes, the readings, the relationship in a new way, to perform with spontaneity again as if for the first time. Which demands a lot of concentration for all concerned, as if the actors did not know the outcome.

There was no place for improvisation either, because this was like a five- or six-round boxing match. Each contender carefully prepares the next blow, but there are no knock-outs.

I divided the script into several musical movements. After an andante introduction, during which the two characters size each other up to figure out how the opponent will respond, come the furioso rounds—the tempo quickens at breakneck pace—followed by calmer moments. It is not common to find such compelling performances in actors who do not seek to outperform each other. Quite the contrary, Niels Arestrup and André Dussollier used their talent and skills to serve the plot.

During the rehearsals, I immediately realized that not only is Niels an amazing actor, he also has a strong personality, which he brought to the role. He sort of offered it as a gift to the general by totally immersing himself in the role. So much so that at some point it became scary. He had become unreservedly this German general more than any German actor could have been, with his conflicting feelings, his stubbornness and his loyalty to the traditions of the army. He was so inhabited by the role that he seemed almost hypnotized, as though he was not in control of his acting. Opposite him, Dussollier is a great artist who has everything under control and whose acting became more sophisticated take after take. Sometimes it was a little difficult to synchronize the two types of approach; each with its own dynamics and pace.


Do you have any advice for aspiring filmmakers?
1. Just do it. And never give up.

2. Love and respect your actors; they are the ones who carry your movie.

3. Filmmaking is like a marathon; once you get started you have to go on, so be prepared for the long distance.

What would you like HIFF audiences to take away from your film?

Good entertainment, to start with. Enjoy the precision of the clockwork. And the human courage, including the loss of his own innocence. The consul wants to put an end to the war. According to him anything goes to achieve his aim and, by the way, the diplomats’ methods are hardly less noxious than those of the military authorities, although admittedly they are not as lethal. Therefore my purpose was to pay tribute to the courage, dedication and craft of this successful diplomat, the real hero of the film. He is the embodiment of human values that go beyond state laws, and diplomacy may achieve more than force. In fact the only way to end a war is diplomacy, hence the dedication to Richard Holbrooke, who ended the war in Bosnia thru diplomacy, against an even more formidable enemy than our general: Milošević.

We are honored to have you in attendance at HIFF 2014. What are you most looking forward to at the Festival?

As always, meet other filmmakers, meet the audience. I am just coming from Telluride, and I own a cabin on the beach in Amagansett… what a way to finish the summer!

Diplomacy will have its East Coast premiere in the Views From Long Island section at HIFF 2014. Find tickets. Follow Diplomacy on Facebook.

Volker-SchlondorffVolker Schlöndorff is arguably one of the most important and internationally successful German directors. Schlöndorff was born in Wiesbaden, Germany, in 1939. Schlöndorff entered the film-world as an assistant director to Louis Malle, Alain Resnais and Jean-Pierre Melville. In 1964, Schlöndorff directed his first feature film, Young Törless, which won several awards and was the first international success for the budding movement of the New German Cinema. The film-version of Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum became Schlöndorff’s biggest success to date. The film earned him a Palme D’Or in Cannes and the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.