The issue of stakes—the potential loss or gain for the characters onscreen—is an extremely important one at the movies, except for maybe Dumb and Dumber To. If the characters have too little to lose, then we don't care about their predicaments. But if they're outlandishly high, we start to glaze over as the film falls into typical formula. How many different ways can you save the world, after all?
Diplomacy absolutely nails the concept of stakes. Based on a play of the same name by Cyril Gely, as well as historical events, it takes place at the end of the most recent worldwide cataclysm, World War II. What hangs in the balance is Paris, which, as of August 25, 1944, was supposed to be rubble at the hands of the German occupation. The man whose finger was on the trigger was General von Choltitz (Niels Arestrup), who received a direct order from the führer himself to blow up the city of lights, the reasons for which are hazy and petty. At 4am on the morning of the 25th, von Choltitz is wide awake and pondering his decision. Swiss diplomat Raoul Nordling (André Dussollier) arrives at the general's hotel suite to convince him otherwise of his decision, but he finds out that there is more than just Hitler's displeasure riding on Paris's destruction—the very lives of von Choltitz's wife and three children. That is, if the general fails to follow through on destroying Paris, his family will be arrested and killed.
A film that involves only two old guys in a room talking for ninety minutes does not bring the masses flocking, but as directed by German master Volker Schlöndorff (Palme d'Or winner for The Tin Drum), the film feels as tense and claustrophobic as nything out there. The camera swoops around the actors, getting closer to their faces as time goes on, trapping them in their moral quandary. The film feels like a more European and less sensationalized version of 12 Angry Men. And although you may know the result before it happens (quickly: did Paris actually burn to the ground?), Schlöndorff wisely emphasizes the monumental difficulty of the decision laid at von Choltitz's feet.
Equally integral to the film's success are the performances by Arestrup and Dessollier, who exercise superior restraint when the material could have strayed into a Crucible-esque shouting match. Arestrup, who played the quietly menacing crime boss in 2009's A Prophet, has the look of a career military officer who wouldn't hesitate to execute his enemies but still has maintained his humanity despite his work. Dessollier has a gentle air about him, providing the warmth that more people with his power and his profession could use. They are exceedingly well matched and hold our attention almost exclusively throughout the runtime of the film. When Arestrup needles Dessollier with "What would you do in my shoes?", Dessollier looks as much at a loss as we feel watching him.
It's that question that ultimately drives the movie. We have had more films about the nuts and bolts of World War II-era events than we can count, but few have unswervingly interrogated the audience like this one. It was the last war that America and its allies definitively won, so films about it like to provide pat, easy conclusions. Schlöndorff is not interested in those; we get none. And thank goodness for that.