Munich: The Edge of War
Run Time: 2 hours 3 minutes
Stars: George MacKay, Jannis Niewöhner, Jeremy Irons
Writer: Ben Power
Director: Christian Schwochow
In Theaters and on Netflix
One of the powers of film is the way it can immerse us in a story, the end of which we know all too well, yet compel us to hang on every scene.
We all know (or should know) that British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain flew to Munich in 1938 to extract from Adolph Hitler promises that he would a) seek no more territory after annexing the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia and b) never go to war against Great Britain.
We also know how that turned out: Hitler kept rolling through Europe and, within a year, he was waging war against the British.
On that historical framework, German director Christian Schwochow and screenwriter Ben Power have draped a pulse-pounding tale of espionage, ambition, and friendship. It’s a human drama, told with finely tuned intimacy, in which the stakes could not be higher.
George MacKay — remembered by most of us as the relentless young soldier trudging across a World War I deathscape in 1917 — plays Hugh Legat, personal assistant to Chamberlain (Jeremy Irons). He also happens to be old Oxford pals with Paul von Hartman (Jannis Niewöhner), who holds a similar position under German Chancellor Hitler (Ulrich Matthes).
In flashback, we see that Paul was a true believer during Hitler’s ascension to power. But now his illusions have evaporated as, despite Hitler’s assertions that he’s done claiming European territory, Paul has stumbled upon a document that proves the dictator plans to conquer the entire continent.
Desperate to get proof of Hitler’s intentions into Chamberlain’s hands before he signs his peace treaty with Hitler, Paul sends word to 10 Downing Street that he wants to hand the damning document to his old buddy, Hugh, during the Munich summit.
Detection, of course, would mean death for both young men, neither of whom seems cut out for this espionage game. And so begins a delicate dance of deception as Paul must negotiate frequent searches of his belongings and Hugh has to maneuver the back streets of Munich to evade Nazi tails. And even when the papers are finally in Hugh’s hands, he must find a way to get Chamberlain alone as the minutes tick down to the signing ceremony.
Layering fiction on history is always a little risky and, truth be told, presumptuous; after all, as Rick said to Ilsa, the problems of a few little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. But Munich succeeds masterfully in weaving those people’s problems into the fabric of history. And while we know in hindsight the clouds of war were, in 1938, inevitably going to rain down on the world, the people of that time still, in classic human fashion, continued to hold out hope that the weather would miraculously clear.
It’s that dogged pipe dream of averted disaster that drives Chamberlain, played with grandfatherly good will by Jeremy Irons. History has not been kind to Chamberlain, depicting him as a naive optimist who was utterly snookered by Hitler and his cronies. That’s not the Chamberlain we see here. Irons portrays him as a clear-eyed politician who harbors no illusions regarding Hitler’s treachery. As the film begins, and Hitler seems poised to roll across Europe any day now, England is bracing for immediate war. By the end, even with transparently phony assurances from Hitler, Chamberlain has bought Britain and the world time to prepare for the inevitable conflict.
As the young British bureaucrat who feels the future of the world pressing on his shoulders, MacKay projects open-mouthed, deer-in-the-headlights innocence mixed with barely controlled panic. There may be no actor with a sadder face than MacKay, who seems perpetually on the verge of tears, even when he offers a faint, tentative smile. That quality serves him well here as Hugh blunders his way through the land mines of international intrigue.
There is a moment near the end of Munich: The Edge of War where we wonder if the film is going to go full Quentin Tarantino and have a character alter the narrative of history. It’s a heart-stopping encounter — and ultimately a sober reminder that history does not exist in the present tense.
As Chamberlain tells the distraught young man accompanying him home with his bogus peace treaty, History makes all of us look like fools. And sometimes that’s a small price to pay.
Featured image: Munich: The Edge of War (Netflix)
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