3 Stars – Thoughtful
It is a little known fact to most people who grew up in the post-World War II era that in August of 1944 as the Allies were about to liberate Paris from the Nazis, it was only a last minute conversation between Dietrich von Choltitz, the German military governor of occupied Paris, and Swedish consul-general Raoul Nordling that kept Paris from being totally destroyed. This French film is a reenactment of the series of conversations that both men had in the final two hours before German General Choltitz was to blow up every major landmark in Paris including Notre Dame, the Opera House, the Louvre, and including the bridges over the Seine River which would cause massive flooding causing the deaths of over one million innocent men, women, and children.
Général von Choltitz (Niels Arestrup) was a man caught in Hitler’s web, recognizing the weight of judgment that would be on his head for destroying this world-renown city while at the same time receiving a direct order from Hitler that was tantamount to blackmail when it indicated that his wife and children would be killed for treason if the General did not follow orders to destroy the city. What was Hitler’s motive? The allies had destroyed his beloved Berlin and he believed that retribution was his statement of retaliation.
The conversation between Choltitz and Raoul Nordling (André Dussollier) takes place only minutes before General Choltitz is to give the order for the destruction of Paris. It seems that the Germans had spent some time rigging explosives all over the city in order to detonate this cataclysm in one grand destructive display. The Swedish consul-general represented a country that had maintained neutrality during both world wars and had access to conversations with the French underground as well as the German leaders. He also knew a secret way into the hotel room that served as the General’s office and he managed to slip into his room to the startled amazement of the German high command for this impromptu last minute conversation.
We won’t give away the depth of diplomacy that is interwoven into their conversation, but it is fair to say that Paris as we know it was within 5-10 minutes of being blown off the face of the earth. The conversations go through a series of transitions from obeying orders, to all’s fair in warfare, saving the General’s family, having moral courage, and ultimately how history would judge the General in the future and how his own children would have to live with that. You realize that these kinds of conversations are without easy answers as you try to articulate complex moral imperatives.
Needless to say, Paris was saved, due in no small part to the Swedish consul-general figuring out how to get the General’s wife and children out of the clutches of the Nazis and get them to safety in Switzerland. When these two men parted ways that night within minutes of the allies arriving to capture the German headquarters, they didn’t think they would ever see one another again. General Choltitz was arrested and remained in prison for two years. In fact though, they did meet one more time in 1955 when the General was quietly awarded a medal for saving Paris.
Discussion for those who have seen this film:
- Since the Swedish counsel-general tries to make the point that it would be immoral to kill a million innocent civilians, how would you respond to the General's counter argument that what he is doing is no more immoral than the Americans who killed a million innocent souls when they firebombed Dresden?
- The moral choice Choltitz had to make was difficult on one level and yet simple on another. What would you have done and how would you have explained your action to yourself and to others? Would you kill a million people to save your family?
- The landscape of a city like Paris is irreplaceable and yet a vengeful heart would have carried it out if Hitler had been in Paris himself. Do you think it was Providence that placed these two men together to save the city and its citizens?