Diplomatic talk, part 1

Volker Schlöndorff on Hiroshima Mon Amour, French German images, and new film Diplomacy.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Diplomacy director Volker Schlöndorff: "This movie for me is less about the Second World War but about French German relationships."
Diplomacy director Volker Schlöndorff: "This movie for me is less about the Second World War but about French German relationships." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Volker Schlöndorff talks Diplomacy (Diplomatie) with Niels Arestrup as his German General Dietrich von Choltitz and André Dussollier as Swedish consul-general Raoul Nordling. The connection between Alain Resnais' Hiroshima Mon Amour and the story of the orders to destroy 1944 Paris in Diplomacy chillingly rings true. Schlöndorff was hired to work with Alain Resnais on [film]Last Year In Marienbad[/ilm] (L'Année Dernière à Marienbad) after being an intern on Louis Malle's Zazie Dans Le Métro and he says Marguerite Duras "knew what she was talking about."

Based on Cyril Gély's play Diplomatie, which starred Arestrup and Dussollier on stage in Paris, Schlöndorff shows us an intimate portrait of two men at odds, dueling with more than their lives at stake.

Emmanuelle Riva in Hiroshima Mon Amour: "It may be Alain Resnais' best film. Marguerite Duras knew what she was talking about."
Emmanuelle Riva in Hiroshima Mon Amour: "It may be Alain Resnais' best film. Marguerite Duras knew what she was talking about."

Anne-Katrin Titze: Hiroshima Mon Amour will be screened in the Revivals section of the upcoming New York Film Festival. The destruction of a city did happen a year after what you show in Diplomacy. The possibility of Paris in ruins is not at all far fetched and I think you point the audience to this alternate reality.

Volker Schlöndorff: I am very happy that Hiroshima Mon Amour opens again. I watched it maybe a year ago when they first showed in Paris the restoration. It may be Alain Resnais' best film. Like so often, the first movie has some special urgency. The beginning between the lovemaking and the corpses and the ashes on the bodies is absolutely stunning and beautiful. In the face of such destruction, even human love is not possible. Physical love is partly possible but a real relationship is not possible. Marguerite Duras knew what she was talking about.

AKT: You were working with Resnais right after that on Last Year In Marienbad.

VS: Alain Resnais had this one incredible continuity girl, Sylvette Baudrot. She was the only technician from France to go to Hiroshima. Everybody else was Japanese there. She's the same age as him, 91 now. It was clearly the longest lasting relationship in the history of cinema. From Hiroshima until his last movie.

Maps of Paris bridges to be destroyed: "It's more powerful than to show the monuments."
Maps of Paris bridges to be destroyed: "It's more powerful than to show the monuments."

She [Baudrot] was on the film where I was an intern, Zazie Dans Le Métro with Louis Malle, and she said, "if you're free in the Fall, we go to Munich to film Marienbad and I will tell Alain about you." So, I kind of jumped the ladder from intern to first AD.

AKT: The beginning of Diplomacy is very impressive. You tie in the radio broadcast and documentary footage. Doesn't [Leni Riefenstahl's 1935] Triumph Of The Will have that sequence connecting all the listeners in the occupied territories?

VS: Absolutely. The voice I did in the studio but I based it upon documents.

AKT: Next comes the night concert with Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting Beethoven.

VS: The Furtwängler recording is of that year [1944] in Berlin, including the cough. This movie for me is less about the Second World War but about French German relationships. I was always struck that the French have these two images of Germany. One is of course, the Nazi and the Gestapo, you know.

Swedish consul-general Raoul Nordling with General Dietrich von Choltitz: "I felt it was important that the General is human, of course he is a human being, but that we should never pity him."
Swedish consul-general Raoul Nordling with General Dietrich von Choltitz: "I felt it was important that the General is human, of course he is a human being, but that we should never pity him."

And the other is a totally idolised thing - the philosopher, the musician, the castles on the Rhine, the fogs - that goes back to Victor Hugo and where not, including Ernst Jünger. I thought, you can have it all in a nutshell - on the one hand, Furtwängler conducting Beethoven for the Nazis while Warsaw is burning. There you got the two images, the best and the worst.

AKT: Plus, you have the coughing which ties in beautifully with General von Choltitz's (Arestrup) asthma attacks.

VS: Oh my God, I did not think about that. Good point for you. Nobody ever thought of that.

AKT: I thought you really had every detail worked out.

VS: That is a pure coincidence.

AKT: The details you show about the planned destruction of Paris have a strong visceral impact. All the bridges were to be blown up with the exception of Pont Neuf, then the Seine would flood the city, the Marais going under water first. The specifics gave me goosebumps.

VS: In the theatre they couldn't do this but I found these old plans and blueprints and had a dynamite specialist come and said where would you put the charges and how much? And then we did these drawings we have in close-up. It's more powerful than to show the monuments. It is the monuments, because by destroying the landmarks of a civilisation you destroy the identity of the enemy. You have to hit the symbols if you want to destroy the enemy.

Niels Arestrup as General Dietrich von Choltitz and André Dussollier as Swedish consul-general Raoul Nordling in Diplomacy.
Niels Arestrup as General Dietrich von Choltitz and André Dussollier as Swedish consul-general Raoul Nordling in Diplomacy.

AKT: Early on, Dussolier's Nordling appears almost like a phantom, a spectre out of Napoleon III's secret passage way. Then he becomes slowly more human. We were talking about Wilder and humor. There is some beautiful dialogue that is actually quite funny. It goes something like this: I never question an order - even if an order is absurd? - I have never received such an order - never? - never.

VS: "Otherwise you wouldn't be a General." Which in real life, the diplomat could not have said to the General because he probably would have hit him in the face. The dialogue about never having received an absurd order is from the play. What is not in the play that I added is: "I've always executed all orders, even the most painful ones" - like the liquidation of Jews.

These things, the author [of the play Cyril Gély] didn't know because he only had access to French sources. I went to dig into all the German documents. This line, the General actually said in prison camp in England.

André Dussollier's Nordling appears almost like a phantom, a spectre in Diplomacy.
André Dussollier's Nordling appears almost like a phantom, a spectre in Diplomacy.

AKT: The line you added? What were some other changes?

VS: Yes. There are a few touches like this. The Russians burning Moscow when Napoleon arrived but the French delivering Paris, legs wide open, to the Germans. That of course makes it much harsher than the play. The play was benign to the General.

I felt it was important that the General is human, of course he is a human being, but that we should never pity him. He should remain the villain he is. In the play, the French were almost at the end siding with the General and angry that the Consul betrayed him.

AKT: Betrayed him?

VS: By lying to him. A lie? I was saying Paris was worth a lie.

In part 2, Volker Schlöndorff discusses more Diplomacy, the link to Josephine Baker and André Dussollier in Alain Resnais' On connaît la chanson, The Ninth Day, Billy Wilder's comedy of manners and answers whether or not he has had an Emperor Waltz in his past.

Diplomacy opens in New York at Film Forum on October 15.

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