Few buildings are as emblematic of Williamstown’s Spring Street as Images Cinema, that landmark next to the liquor store that brings the quaintness of our town to a whole new level. On Mondays in February and early March, the building will provide more than decoration or entertainment. Images is hosting the “In/Tolerance: Conflict and Violence in New French Film” festival, an event funded by the romance languages department that began last Monday night with a showing of Volker Schlöndorff’s 2014 picture Diplomatie, or Diplomacy in English. The films in the festival will all be shown in French with English subtitles.
The premise of Diplomatie is simple: At the height of the Nazi occupation of Paris, two men, General Von Cholitz, played by Niels Astrup, and André Dussollier, played by Raoul Nordling, argue about the fate of the captured city. General Cholitz is under strict orders from Hitler to destroy a number of Parisian landmarks, devastating the infrastructure of the metropolis enough to slow the rapid and quickening pace of the advancing Allied troops. However, Dussollier, a Swedish diplomat who sneaks into Cholitz’s room to gain audience with him, believes otherwise. He tells Cholitz the demolition would have tremendous impact not only on Paris’s institutional and cultural heritage, but on its millions of residents. To destroy the city would be more than a military decision; it would be an intellectual and human abomination.
I’ll refrain from spoiling the ending but, given that the film is based on real, if somewhat fictionalized, events, it wouldn’t take much for the historically oriented viewer to figure out the finale. And yet, in spite of the predictability inherent to historical dramas, the conclusion of Diplomatie is a marvelous emotional roller-coaster – a meditation on the futility of war, the meaning of patriotism and the difficulty of doing the right thing, even when it seems easy.
Of course, to call the movie a historical drama belies the fundamental importance of the message being communicated. Indeed, the action of the film doesn’t center around the historical details of the Parisian occupation – instead, the drama in Diplomatie is fundamentally human: it’s about conflicting loyalties between country, family, friends and what we think is right. That the difficult central message could be so effortlessly communicated in an 86-minute film speaks to the quality of the performances by Astrup and Nordling, who captured the gravitas of the moment without ceding to the easy pitfalls of melodrama or boredom.
The film also wove itself into the more general theme of violence and intolerance the the festival centers around this year.While Nazism and the destruction of Europe’s intellectual capital are certainly violent and intolerant in their own right, it became clear as the film progressed that the stakes were individual as well as global. In Diplomatie as in life, the fates of countries and ideologies were catalyzed and reflected in human conversations and disagreements – in the film, it’s the decision made by one man on one night, seventy years ago.
Diplomatie showed on the first Monday of the festival. It will be followed on Feb. 23 by Tom and the Farm, directed by Xavier Dolan, and on March 2 by Rachid Djaïdani’s Hold Back. If the first movie was any indication, the chosen films feature an unbelievable capacity for drama, nuance and sentiment. Therefore, even if foreign film isn’t your typical choice, you should make your way down to Images over the next two weeks–you might just be surprised by what these movies have to offer you.