Brow Beat

Before Sunset’s Story of Notre Dame’s Near-Destruction Is a Comfort and a Warning Now

Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy on a boat.
Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in Before Sunset.
Warner Independent Pictures

Have you heard the story of when Notre Dame was nearly destroyed but saved at the last minute? If this is ringing a bell, it’s either because you’re a Parisian history whiz or you’re familiar with Before Sunset, the second film in Richard Linklater’s cult romantic trilogy starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as long-ago lovers who reunite serendipitously for a single day in Paris. The scene in question takes place on a boat ride along the Seine, as Jesse (Hawke) and Celine (Delpy) test the waters of their relationship while admiring the city from the river. “Notre Dame, man. Check that out,” Jesse marvels, gesturing at the cathedral in awe.

As devastating news of the fire at Notre Dame circulated on Monday, Hawke and Delpy’s wonderment was one of the many movie moments that surfaced on social media to commemorate the landmark, which lost huge sections of its roof and its central spire in the blaze. But as the couple drifts along the Seine in Before Sunset, a more heartening image of Notre Dame emerges as Jesse shares a story—not of destruction, but of rescue.

When the Germans were retreating from Paris, he tells Celine, they wired Notre Dame for an explosion. Military leaders left a single soldier in charge of detonating the blow—but when it came time, the soldier couldn’t bring himself to do it. “He just sat there, knocked out by how beautiful the place was,” Jesse continues. “And then, when the Allied troops came in, they found all the explosives just lying there, and the switch unturned. And they found the same thing at Sacre Coeur, Eiffel Tower, a couple of other places, I think.”

After asking Jesse whether the legend was true (and receiving a wistful “I don’t know, I always liked the story, though”), Celine replies, “That’s a great story. But you have to think that Notre Dame will be gone one day.”

The exchange comes at a crucial moment in Jesse and Celine’s reunion. Minutes later, Jesse, who’s an American, admits that he’s been pining after Celine, who’s French, since their initial meeting in Vienna nine years earlier. (They bid farewell at the end of 1995’s Before Sunrise, the prequel to Before Sunset.) As they gaze at the Notre Dame that day, Jesse’s starry-eyed remembrance of the cathedral’s fabled antiquity—a feeling that some cast a skeptical eye upon in the reactions to yesterday’s fire—mirrors his sentimental longing for Celine. To him, the centuries-old cathedral seems eternal. But as a European, Celine is more practical about the monument’s inevitable lifespan, and similarly about the likely fate of her romance.

Built in the 12th and 13th centuries, Notre Dame has long stood as a testament to Paris’ rich history and enduring beauty, and its ruination is made even more distressing by its symbolic weight as an international landmark. Before Sunset feels like a fitting movie for the sad occasion, given that the film is something of a landmark of its own. All three of the intimate Before films, whose stories are separated by the same nine-year intervals at which they were released, unfold over the course of a single day (or night) in a European city. Fittingly, each has a wistful quality, capturing the transience of love and inexorability of time.

Jesse’s story about a single soldier sparing Notre Dame is such a perfect fit for the movie’s themes and mood that it’s tempting to suspect that Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy (who share writing credits on the film) made it up. Besides its improbable wartime logistics, the anecdote provides an obvious metaphor for Jesse’s situation: Just as the soldier saved Notre Dame, Jesse hopes that he too will be able to salvage something he considers too lovely to destroy—his relationship with Celine. So as we revisited the scene, we had to wonder: How factual is Jesse’s story?

Apparently, there was a wartime instance of Notre Dame’s last-minute rescue—although the story is a lot less romantic than Jesse makes it sound. According to political historian Randall Hansen’s book Disobeying Hitler: German Resistance After Valkyrie, the question came down less to an unnamed soldier than an illustrious German General named Dietrich von Choltitz. Just weeks before Paris was liberated, von Choltitz, who was overseeing Paris as a military governor, received instructions to squash an uprising at the Parisian Prefecture—though striking it down would have taken out Notre Dame and the Sainte Chapelle as well.

During meetings with Swedish consul-general Raoul Nordling—detailed in the 1965 book and 1966 film adaptation Is Paris Burning?—von Choltitz admitted that he was hesitant to pull the trigger, disturbed by the idea of burning down such a beautiful part of the city. Ultimately, a ceasefire was established, though it remains unclear whether von Choltitz defied Hitler out of heroic love for Paris (which he later claimed in his memoir), was manipulated by Nordling, or merely felt compelled to surrender out of desperation.

Watching Notre Dame’s centuries-old spire collapse in flames, there’s a certain comfort in the knowledge that the cathedral has eluded destruction in the past—and that the building inspired just as much awe 75 years ago for von Choltitz as it did 15 years ago for Jesse, and as it does for many of us today.