How to Get Someone to Change His Mind: A Film Review of Diplomacy

How To Get Someone to Change His Mind
A film review of Diplomacy by Dr. Lloyd Sederer


On a hot night in late August of 1944 the Allies, led by General Patton's army, had advanced to the periphery of occupied Paris. It was a matter of hours before Paris would be liberated after four years of Nazi rule, and General Charles de Gaulle would announce a free France. Europe was finally to see an end to the bloodiest of all wars but Paris as we know it today was about to be destroyed.

So sets the stage for this gripping drama about how Paris was spared. The Nazis had planted the city with explosives that would destroy the Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame, La Place de Concorde, the Louvre, Les Invalides, the Eiffel Tower, countless other iconic landmarks, 33 bridges, as well as central train stations whose destruction would cause the Seine to flood and add further massive damage to compound the devastation. Human casualties were estimated at 1.5 million people.

General Dietrich von Cholitz (Niels Arestrup) had been dispatched to Paris two weeks earlier as its Governor to "restore control." But Cholitz also was under Hitler's order to demolish Paris, to cause it to mercilessly suffer the fate of Berlin, Hamburg, and other German cities. When the Allies pushed through the German lines into Paris he was to give the order. What happened that he did not?

Diplomacy tells a fictionalized version of what happened, since no one quite knows. First a play (Diplomatie, 2011, by Cyril Gély, who with Director Volker Schlöndorff wrote the screenplay for this film) the film combines the power of theatre with the visual scope of film. The Swedish Consul in Paris, Raoul Nordling (André Dussollier, the distinguished French actor most recently known for Amélie, A Very Long Engagement and Tell No One), surreptitiously enters Cholitz's headquarters at the Hotel Meurice and changes his mind.

Nordling had lived in Paris most of his life. He recently had negotiated with the General for the release of political prisoners so he was no stranger to the Nazi Governor. But his goal of averting the bombing was to call for extraordinary skill, as we witness as both men go at it for the crisp 88 minutes of this film.

As a psychiatrist, I loved the movie. I saw enacted how to change the mind of someone resolute in his decision. Life or death can hang in the balance, as it did in the film and as it does, for example, in mental health care when someone has decided to suicide; or believes they are God and commanded to act in a way destructive to others; or is addicted to drugs, alcohol, or tobacco; and countless other instances when someone has exited from reason and responsibility.

The work of changing a person's mind starts with believing they are ambivalent in their conviction or planned behavior. Ambivalence is different from having doubt. Ambivalence means holding two contradictory views or feelings at the same time. Doubt is about questioning. The work of mental change is to enable someone to move from death to life, from compulsion to recovery, from delusion to reality. The change agent, whether they be a mental health professional or a diplomat, must believe that the now present conviction is but one side of a powerful psychological dilemma within that person -- that he or she is ambivalent and can, thus, equally occupy the opposite pole of their resolve.

Consul Nordling has four principal tactics that enable him to prevail. First, he knows that control must reside in the General, and will never be ceded to him. Second, he makes sure that he avoids politics.

Third, he finds a way to make it personal. And fourth, he knows that any change must serve the interests of his subject. The Consul's intelligence and charm help but the General is too dedicated and wizened to be won over by these refinements. Cholitz has fought in two wars and carried out horrendous orders as his "duty" -- he is not about to be sweet-talked into anything.

Nordling has the gift of empathy, which shapes his every move. He uses a variety of approaches, including imagery (children, the future of both countries); shame (the criminal act of razing a City and its inhabitants); remorse; generous doses of reality; calling upon self-respect and pride; evoking the integrity of Cholitz being the third generation in his family of German military leaders; even portraying the glory of the General as a savior. Nordling notices on the wall an etching of Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac and asks what kind of man would obey an order, even from God, if the price was the death of a child? He knows when to show humility and admit he is wrong. Nordling understands the power of kindness and takes a gamble on it when he might have otherwise let Cholitz succumb to an asthma attack.

But as powerful, and necessary, as these tactics are they are not sufficient to change the General's mind. It is only when the Consul's unbending efforts at change bring the General to the personal is he poised to find the good instead of the bad. Only then can Cholitz admit to the barbarism and hate that have driven his orders from the Führer, and with Nordling find a way to both save Paris and to save what the General holds most precious, namely his family.

The next time you are in Paris take time to admire its elegance and antiquity. But for one person's ability to help another change, for what must have been masterful diplomacy, you might not be able to enjoy the view.


Dr. Sederer is a psychiatrist and public health physician. The views expressed here are entirely his own. He takes no support from any pharmaceutical or device company. -- Follow Lloyd I. Sederer, MD on Twitter: