Volker Schlöndorff’s sly film about a last-ditch diplomatic effort to save Paris from destruction at the end of World War II opens in stagey exposition style that seems to promise little more than an elevated after-school special on speaking to the enemy. We meet a pensive German general (Niels Arestrup) who seems vulnerable even as he spouts assertions about following orders. Outside, black-and-white stock footage is attacking; inside, it’s a one-set discussion of just how completely the City of Lights is going to be blown up and doused.
And then the lights go out. When they return, the general is face-to-face with a Swedish ambassador (André Dussollier) who appears in the heavily guarded room as if by magic. Even though it feels like a cheap theatrical trick, the rest of the film is more than redeemed by the give and take of these two fine actors engaging that premier WWII plot device: an impossible quandary. As the German and the Swede begin drawing intractable lines in the rubble of an already lost war, they begin to experience empathy — one is a man whose politics demand neutrality and the other a man who has had personal contact with the once-mesmerizing Fuhrer.
But the best parts of this talky film lie in its unstated truths. For brief moments, underlings go about preparing Paris to be flooded, leveled, and burned, and the audience meets the true heroes of the story — the ones who are not so dependent on persuasion and humanistic insights. Schlöndorff opens up this adaptation of a French play and then gives us one act of violence by a compromised character with only a few lines to speak. He lets us try out magic for most of his film but is wise enough to introduce brutish realities, too. Even in this idealistic context, we see diplomacy as noble but only a half of the way to the city’s salvation.