MUNICH: THE EDGE OF WAR (2021)
As European war looms in 1938, a young Englishman is sent to Berlin to retrieve a secret document that could change the course of history.
Even great thriller writers can have off days, and Robert Harris’s Munich in 2017 wasn’t one of his most compelling novels. This pallid adaptation for Netflix suffers from the same central problem—the outcome of British attempts to head off war with German in the late-1930s is extremely well-known, to say the least, so any suspense has to rest in the particulars of the story rather than in the big picture. And in Munich: The Edge of War, especially, the particulars aren’t particularly interesting either.
There’s an unusual historical angle, however. Harris’s, and the film’s, main concern is to rehabilitate the reputation of Neville Chamberlain (Jeremy Irons)—whom Harris described as “probably still the most reviled prime minister in British history”—and the thriller element of the story, concerning a rather dull young British diplomat and his German counterpart, is really only a pretext for this.
Chamberlain, in the Harris/Munich reading, wasn’t trying to compromise with Hitler because he thought the German leader wasn’t a threat, let alone because he sympathised. Instead, he was seeking to buy time to re-arm before a war that even to Chamberlain must’ve seemed almost inevitable; and in persuading Hitler to put his name to a statement hoping for future peace, Chamberlain wasn’t expecting the dictator intended to abide by it, but hoping that if Hitler was seen overtly breaking his word the other European powers would unite against him, and maybe even the Americans would join in.
As the Prime Minister (wonderfully played by Irons, in a performance that’s the only reason to see Munich: The Edge of War) says, you have to play the cards you’re dealt, and if negotiating with Hitler wasn’t ideal it was nevertheless the least-worst option.
Munich: The Edge of War, its title presumably changed to avoid confusion with Steven Spielberg’s Munich (2005), opens in 1932 with familiar imagery of gilded Oxford youth quaffing champagne and lounging by the Isis. They are Hugh (George MacKay) and Paul (Jannis Niewöhner), a student from Germany whose character is distantly based on the real-life Adam von Trott.
Soon, however, the action moves forward to 1938, where the bulk of the movie is set. War is in the air as tension grows over the Sudetenland crisis, in which Hitler demanded that part of Czechoslovakian territory be given to Germany (Hugh helpfully fills in the details to his wife, played by Jessica Brown Findlay, over lunch). Gas masks are being distributed on the street, as barrage balloons are hauled above London landmarks.
Hugh, we soon learn, is now an aide in 10 Downing Street, working closely with Chamberlain. However, it’s not the PM but a senior member of his staff, Sir Horace Wilson (Alex Jennings), who approaches the young man and asks him to go to Germany to collect from the anti-Nazi resistance a document purporting to reveal Hitler’s aggressive plans for Europe. His contact, unsurprisingly, will be his old friend Paul, now working in the heart of the German government…
From hereon it continues in a more or less predictable manner. There are some successful individual passages (the atmosphere of the European leader’s summit in Munich is believable, and a bar scene where Paul asks Hugh for a meeting with Chamberlain is one of the few points where the film seems about to catch fire), and there are a few interesting twists to the tale. For example, the German anti-Nazi underground of which Paul is a member doesn’twant the Sudetenland issue resolved; they want war as a reason to remove Hitler from power.
But there are some awkwardly expository scenes, too, like that lunch of Hugh and his wife, or a flashback to a conversation in a German bar years earlier, where Hugh outlines the liberal objections to Nazism while Paul (not yet disenchanted by Hitler) explains why people are uniting behind the fascists. It’s very close to telling rather than showing.
In the film’s favour there’s some nice period detail, especially in Berlin (which we see less often than London in movies set during this time), although there seems to me something increasingly questionable about the apparently mandatory scenes of Jews being humiliated on the streets. Of course it happened, but that’s my point: the Holocaust and the Nazi persecution of the Jews in general are surely among the best-known historical facts of the 20th-century, and do they really need to be reduced to mere colourful background? To be fair, the war was only two decades over when I was born, so perhaps such sights will serve to raise awareness among younger viewers, for whom the Nazi era has always been distant history.
It’s all competently crafted by director Christian Schwochow (The Crown), even if visually it’s perhaps a bit too clean and crisp to ever feel quite real. None of the upsides, however, do enough to counteract the film’s two major weaknesses: the essential pointlessness of the plot (since we know how it ends and we’re not emotionally invested in the characters), and the flatness of the two leads.
MacKay as Hugh is earnest, enthusiastic, slightly anxious, not at all implausible as a keen but somewhat out of his depth young civil servant in the 1930s. The trouble is that he’s earnest, enthusiastic and slightly anxious to almost exactly the same degree throughout the movie. His performance in 1917 (2019) was disappointingly one-note, and it suffers from exactly the same problem here.
Niewöhner as Paul is more intense but equally, if not more, characterless—all he is is a plot device. While there ‘s surely dramatic potential in their relationship, two old pals who aren’t quite pals any more, and ultimately they do little but represent opposing positions: the Briton who hopes for peace, the German stressing urgency of action. Their other relationships, for example Hugh’s with his wife, are barely examined at all.
Irons, thankfully, couldn’t be more different. His Chamberlain is absolutely full of character and we want to learn much more about him. This infamous Prime Minister is often seen as a weak man, but here he’s able to take control of a situation when he needs to (for instance when he finally meets Paul) and most importantly, he’s passionate—not passive—in his desire to avoid war, as the hellish conflict of 1914-18 still haunts him.
Chamberlain’s popular for that reason, too—“God bless you, Mr Chamberlain!” the crowds cry—and just as with Ronald Pickup playing the same role in Darkest Hour (2017), Munich: The Edge of War achieves something in reminding us that even if Churchill emerged as the great leader of the era, history’s been unfair to Chamberlain.
Elsewhere in the cast are many fine actors in smaller roles, notably Ulrich Matthes (Downfall), who makes a striking Hitler—cold, driven, and full of loathing. Sandra Hüller as an older German secretary who has an affair with Paul and passes Hitler’s plans to him is convincing and just tragic enough, while also notable on the German side are August Diehl, playing an old friend of Paul’s who has become a Nazi true believer, and Marc Limpach in a small role as a German functionary.
Among the Brits, Jennings’s Sir Horace manages to be credible as both a 1930s Whitehall mandarin and a sympathetic man, while Anjli Mohindra as a super-efficient typist who takes Hugh under her wing has one of the film’s best lines: “If you want to know where I’m from, the answer is Nottingham.” The cheeky dig at criticisms of colourblind casting may be completely ahistorical but it’s perfectly timed and delivered.
Munich: The Edge of War depicts a brief episode in European history that could have been pivotal, even if with the benefit of hindsight we know that it turned out to be a dead end. It does so occasionally with style, and occasionally with moments of drama; it does manage to convey some of the time’s tension, and Irons certainly does a sterling job in creating a credible, human Chamberlain, who’s neither craven nor stupid.
But in the end, the fact we know the historical storyline leads nowhere leaves only the more personal narrative of Hugh and Paul to provide engagement, and it’s simply not interesting enough—in either the writing or the performances. The stakes were enormous for Europe in 1938, but for the audience in 2022 they’re not nearly high enough.
UK • GERMANY | 2021 | 131 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH • GERMAN
director: Christian Schwochow.
writer: Ben Power (based on the novel by Robert Harris).
starring: Jeremy Irons, George MacKay, Jannis Niewöhner, Alex Jennings & Sandra Hüller.