“Munich: on the brink of war”
“Munich: on the brink of war”
88 Cast: George MacKay, Jeremey Irons, Jannis Niewohner, Robert Bathurst, Jessica Brown Findlay, August Diehl, Sandra Huller, Alex Jennings, Ulrich Matthes, Liv Lisa Fries
Director: Christian Schwochow
Rating: PG-13, for some coarse language, thematic elements, smoking and brief violence
Streaming on Netflix
Few actors can lay claim to a more impressive career than Jeremy Irons. With a voice that could soothe just reciting the alphabet and an almost unrivaled versatility in front of a camera, the 73-year-old Englishman comes with a long list of accomplishments. Perhaps most impressive is his status as one of the few actors to achieve the “Triple Crown of Acting” (meaning winning an Oscar, Emmy and Tony).
Irons plays Neville Chamberlain in Netflix’s new war feature ‘Munich: The Edge of War’. The film, a “historical fiction” built around real people and events, is essentially a reassessment of the oft-maligned British Prime Minister, a man who has quickly become synonymous with humiliation, weakness and appeasement. This film (adaptation of Robert Harris’ bestseller) dares to challenge the old perception of the complicated leader. Not to absolve him of naivety or lack of judgment. But to argue that Chamberlain’s motives were rooted in strategic foresight rather than incompetence.
Chamberlain was a strong believer in peace through diplomacy. In September 1938, as Germany prepared to invade Czechoslovakia and its army was unable to mount a defence, Chamberlain arranged a meeting with Adolf Hitler, French minister Edouard Daladier and Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in Munich. The short-term goal of the conference was to discourage the Führer from invading Czechoslovakia. In the long term, this was to avoid the growing possibility of a Second World War.
The meeting ended with Britain and France acquiescing to Hitler’s demands, ceding the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia to him. Chamberlain hoped this would quell the Führer’s growing appetite for territory. This was not the case. Chamberlain returned home, telling an enthusiastic and relieved British audience that he had been granted “peace with honour”. But just as his harshest critic and eventual successor Winston Churchill had predicted, it only took Hitler a few months to prove Chamberlain wrong. Germany seized what was left of Czechoslovakia and soon after (September 1, 1939) invaded Poland, starting World War II.
Directed by German filmmaker Christian Schwochow and written by screenwriter Ben Power, “Munich: The Edge of War” takes all of the above story into account to tell the story of the Munich Agreement, but from a single view. While Irons’ Chamberlain is certainly a key player, the historical narrative mostly unfolds through the fictional friendship of two Oxford graduates – one British and one German.
British diplomat Hugh Legat (George MacKay) and German Foreign Office aide Paul von Hartman (Jannis Niewohner) were best friends until the politics of a dictator drove them apart. But with war looming on the horizon, the two young men find themselves fighting for peace, albeit from two very different positions. Hugh works closely with the Prime Minister as he prepares to meet Hitler. Paul is part of a secret opposition group within the German government whose plan to oust the Führer is thwarted by the Munich conference.
Schwochow and Power tear out several story pieces, add their own twists and graft them into this gripping story that proves to be part political drama and part spy thriller. While the disastrous results of the Munich meeting are well known, the real drama of the film surrounds secret documents that detail Hitler’s real expansionist plans (apparently inspired by the actual Hossbach memorandum). When they fall into opposition hands, Paul is tasked with smuggling them to Munich where he is to secretly use the documents to dissuade Chamberlain from signing a treaty with Hitler. But to get closer to the Prime Minister, he will need the help of his old friend, Hugh.
The film also puts its own spin on the Oster Conspiracy, a secret plan proposed by high-ranking German officers in 1938 to assassinate Hitler and overthrow the Nazi regime. In the film, the German opposition contemplates a back-up plan to kill Hitler in case Paul and Hugh are unable to convince Chamberlain in Munich. Adding yet another layer of drama, August Diehl (so good in 2019’s “A Hidden Life”) plays a German SS officer who begins to suspect that Paul and Hugh are in cahoots.
The film is energized by Tim Pannen’s stellar production design. One of the keys was the choice to film in the actual locations, including the current Fuhrerbau (translated as “the Führer’s building”) — the very building in Munich where the Czechs were sold off by their British “ally” (today it is a University of Music and Performing Arts). There’s also tremendous attention to detail, from the period costumes and vintage cars that fill the streets, to the scarlet Nazi banners adorning buildings, cars and uniforms. Everything here seems perfectly fine.
And back to the performances, unsurprisingly Irons is brilliant, portraying Chamberlain as warm and endearing but blinded by his own optimism. We also get passionate, textured work from MacKay and Niewohner. Hitler is played with cold austerity by Ulrich Matthes, perhaps best known for his role as Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels in 2004’s ‘Downfall.’ and fiction that may not convince everyone to reconsider Neville Chamberlain, but it certainly gives us plenty to chew on.