Munich: The Edge Of War
September 1938: Europe stands on the brink of war as Nazi Germany’s desire to annex the Sudetenland puts Hitler on a collision course with France and Britain. In London, Private Secretary Huge Legat (George McKay) works on the last minute peace talks while assisting the ailing Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Jeremy Irons): amid a crumbling marriage and the fear of a global cataclysm, his world is turned upside down when an estranged university friend, Paul von Hartmann (Jannis Niewöhner) makes contact with the British, claiming to have in his possession proof of Hitler’s future territorial ambitions, which he will make available only to Legat at the upcoming Munich Conference.
Based on Robert Harris’ 2017 novel Munich (the elongated title presumably meant to differentiate it from the 2005 Stephen Spielberg film), Munich: The Edge Of War is a slow-burning espionage story of a type we may be somewhat unused to, but succeeds mostly because of that as it does for any other reason. We know how this story ends: with the Nazi’s getting what they want and Chamberlain waving that infamous bit of paper in the air a year before the outbreak of World War Two. But the story of how we get to that point, both in terms of Chamberlain’s drive to secure peace despite his own strong reservations about Hitler, and the fictional aspect of two young men enmeshed in the backroom dealings of the day trying to do right by their country and conscience, ensures that however predictable the endpoint is, you’ll be engaged and entertained by what comes before.
The film constitutes a fairly sympathetic appraisal of Chamberlain, played with aplomb by Irons who seems tailor-made for such prestige roles these days. There’s plenty of debate to be had about appeasement and where it led, but director Christian Schwochow certainly errs towards the idea that Chamberlain was doing the world a favour, keeping a major conflict on the long figure while the British military played catch-up (that it might have been easier to face the Germany military down in 1938 is not a question that is tackled). Chamberlain is portrayed both as an adept politician, who understood the reluctance of the British people to get entangled in a war over the Sudetenland as well as ways in which to give Hitler just enough diplomatic rope with which to hang his credibility himself, and as an old man who didn’t have the chance to serve in the last war and is just fine doing his damndest to prevent another. While limited in screentime, you’ll come out of Munich: The Edge Of War thinking beter of a dignified Chamberlain than you might have done previously: he may have been the worst kind of wartime leader, but his strong moral convictions and dedication to peace were obvious.
It’s this that informs the modern-day context of the film of course, coming as it does at a time when engagement with the “alt-right” is a very important part of the political landscape. Those who would make deals are often compared to Chamberlain in negative terms, by those who would prefer a more militant, shall we say Churchillian, stance. The Edge Of War posits that one must be prepared to play a long game when competing against such interests, to be willing to shake hands now as you prepare to bring the gun out later. Whether that is a winning strategy remains to be seen, but The Edge Of War sticks to its argument from start to finish.
The fictional side of things takes up the lions share of the running time of course, and works quite well. You have the perpetually stressed looking figure of Legat trying to reckon with his belief that a war deferred is not that worthy of a goal, and you have von Hartman, a one-time cheerleader for the NSDAP whose disillusionment with Hitler in power has grown to the point of coup talk and espionage. Having the crux of the issue be this very personal connection between the two men – a flashback scene set in 1932 Munich is very affecting for the way in which the Nazi ideology infects and destroys their friendship – keeps things interesting, as does the manner in which the film navigates the complicated reality of diplomatic norms at the time: when it is able to make great tension out of whether Legat will have the gall to ask Chamberlain to meet with von Hartman, it has to be deemed an impressive success of filmmaking.
Vital to that is both McKay and Niewöhner, who put in the kinds of shifts that are guaranteed to elevate material that could otherwise be unexceptional. McKay has rapidly solidified a position as one of the best young actors working today, and continues that with his Legat, a very nervous, shuffling kind of protagonist, and one whose limited rebellion against employment restrictions is bound to endear him to many watching. Niewöhner gets to be a bit more passionate, in von Hartman’s efforts to unseat Hitler (played by Ulrich Matthes, who previously played Joseph Goebbels in Der Untergang), in his attempts to steer clear of a menacing Nazi bodyguard (August Diehl, previously in pretty much the same role in Inglorious Basterds) or in his dalliance with his older secretary Frau Winter (an understated Sandra Hüller), and helps to exemplify a dearly held but ultimately frustrated resistance to Nazi role. The two only really interact in a few scenes, but make the most of them, with what you can only describe as a certain latent homoeroticism evident in at least one moment.
Schwochow – a German, so you know you are getting an interesting perspective – directs a sombre enough looking production, one that matches the mood of the times I suppose. London is a litany of richly upholstered but dim interiors, matched with a certain strain of panic on the outside (an early scene where Legat navigates a collapsed barrage balloon makes the point rather well). Germany is similar enough, only less richly upholstered and darker, which I suppose fits. The Edge Of War, in terms of cinematography, takes on the appearance of an adapted stage-play, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the material got that kind of treatment some time: it’s rare more than three characters ever share the same lens at any given time, and its preference for cramped rooms is able to capture something of the intense backroom dealings of the time and place.
2022 seems likely to be another year where I am overly-reliant on streaming to find new movies worth watching, and The Edge Of War is a more-than-decent inclusion from such sources on a list that already includes a few decent ones. I tells an interesting story that balances the needs of the factual with the intentional of the fictional, it’s cast and acted well, does what is required for the visual side of things, and adds something to a more modern debate on the legacy of appeasement and on how left should treat right in a 21st century context. If Netflix keeps giving films like this the opportunity to find an audience, then more power to them. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).