MUNICH: THE EDGE OF WAR
2022, PG-13, 129 mins.
George MacKay as Hugh Legat / Jannis Niewöhner as Paul Hartmann / Liv Lisa Fries as Lenya / Sandra Hüller as Helen Winter / Jeremy Irons as Neville Chamberlain / Martin Wuttke as Adolf Hitler / August Diehl as Franz Sauer / Martin Kiefer as Heinrich HimmlerDirected by Christian Schwochow / Written by Ben Power, based on Robert Harris' novel
On paper, a fact-based thriller about the build-up and aftermath of a famous historical conference involving multiple nations doesn't sound too particularly thrilling.
For the most
part, though, Netflix's MUNICH: THE EDGE OF WAR is a commendably good, but
sometimes wobbly men standing around and talking/negotiating
bureaucratic spy drama that amalgamates fact and fiction in liberal doses,
but manages to get by on the strength of its gripping performances, some
solid direction, and many of the historical questions that it poses about
its very subject matter and the power players contained within.
Based on the 2017 novel of the same name, this Christian Schwochow
directed affair sort absconds away from the usual accoutrements of the
genre and instead focuses on the smaller players that figured heavily into
working with their more high ranking and well known governmental leaders
to convince them of the then dreadful tsunami of horrors to come from
Adolf Hitler and his rise to power. MUNICH:
THE EDGE OF WAR reminds viewers of how the nagging uncertainties of what's
to come permeated the minds of those in charge and often led to decisions
that history would judge them poorly on.
context is important before discussing the plot of this film.
Back in 1938 Hitler wanted to invade Czechoslovakia and annex the
Sudetenland. British PM
Neville Chamberlain made three pilgrimages to Germany to try to convince
the Fuhrer that war was not the answer.
The third visit was the Munich Conference (which makes up the bulk
of this film's story), during which time Chamberlain and Hitler signed an
agreement that the latter's annexation desires would be respected
(Chamberlain hoped - rather falsely - that this would curtail Hitler from perusing
any other action in the world). Then these two powers signed an agreement to never go to war
with each other, one that Chamberlain famously flaunted to the world as a
Less than a year
later, Hitler's ravenous appetite for conquering nations came to the
forefront when he invaded Poland, which led to the beginning of World War
II and the British PM looking rather bad in terms of his inaction to stop
this madman beforehand. He
died in 1940 shortly after leaving office.
MUNICH: THE EDGE
OF WAR is not wholly about the meetings between Chamberlain and Hitler,
but is rather about two fictitious diplomat friends that went from being
pre-war BFFs and then became estranged because of their divergent
political views. Ultimately, they come together to combat the notion
that Hitler was indeed mad and needs to be stopped...even if Chamberlain
feels otherwise. The movie
opens in flashback in 1932 and introduces us to these buddies as Oxford
students, intoxicated during a party and enjoying each other's company (and
both have no idea of the types of darkness that the world is about to be
covered in). One of them is
Hugh Legat (George MacKay) and the other is Paul Von Hartmann (Jannis
Niewohner), and their once budding friendship is put on permanent hold
when Hartmann becomes a follower and supporter of Hitler (Martin
whereas Legat has aspirations of working with the British government to
deal with the threat of Hitler to come.
As the film flashes forward six years we're re-introduced to these
lads, with Hartmann working in the German Foreign Service office with
close working ties to Hitler, whereas Legat has become a secretary at the
British Foreign Ministry and comes to be an advisor to Chamberlain (Jeremy
Not everything is
as it seems, though, and after Hartmann and Legat have an awkward
impromptu meeting during the Munich Conference the former reveals to the
other that he's part of a clandestine underground movement to do
everything in his power to help convince Chamberlain of Hitler's insanity
and his yearning for world domination. Hartmann reveals to Legat that he has a stolen document that
proves that Hitler cannot in any way be appeased and intends to take on
all of Europe. Part of what
makes MUNICH: THE EDGE OF WAR have such an ominous vibe about it is in how
these desperate men band together in a last ditch effort to convince the
rather stubborn Chamberlain that he has no idea of the horror show to come
with another World War on the horizon.
We've all seen historical dramas and fact based spy thrillers that
hone in on the big well known names, but MUNICH: THE EDGE OF WAR goes
against the grain by giving us an intimate portal into lesser known personas
(albeit, made up) that try to impart their way into the inner circles of
powerful leaders by trying to convince them of not making any mistakes
when it comes to underestimating Hitler's ferocious ambitions.
The film asks us
to look back at Chamberlain's well known failures when it came to
appeasing Hitler to curb his mad schemes.
History has painted this pre-war PM as someone that naively thought
that he could actually negotiate with the likes of Hitler and calm his
expansionist urges. One area that MUNICH: THE EDGE OF WAR seems to falter in is
in directly answering whether or not Chamberlain should be scolded for his
pre-ware inaction or commended for buying time with his agreements with
Hitler that allowed for the allies of the world to arm up and get ready
for the massive challenge to come. I'm
not entirely sure what screenwriter Ben Power really feels about this
dicey political conundrum. I
don't think that Chamberlain is portrayed as a bumbling strategist, nor is
he shown as a leader that didn't know the battle of wits he was playing
with Hitler ("You can't play poker with a gangster without some cards
up your sleeves" he tells a concerned Legat at one point).
Irons is in reliably confident form here as this troubled
politician, and perhaps paints this long ridiculed leader with more subtle
complexity and nuance than any other actor would have mustered.
Irons' Chamberlain is not a fool and is definitely driven by a
peace agenda, but he's also not a proactive forward thinker in the
slightest and thinks that his strategy alone will rule the day versus any
other outside ideas creeping in.
Schwochow (who has directed episodes of THE CROWN) seems to intuitively
know his way around this material and engineers a handful of memorably
intense sequences, such as the moment when Hartmann (with Legat in tow)
becomes increasingly flabbergasted with Chamberlain's lack of concern
during a secret meeting with him...even after providing the aforementioned
document that proves Hitler is nuttier than a fruitcake.
There's also a surprisingly nerve wracking scene involving Hartmann
being asked by Hitler to borrow his watch (it becomes about so much more
than given this man his watch, and Niewohner is so good in the film at
evoking his character's twitchy unease). The verbal sparring and
cerebral chess games that these characters play behind closed doors make
up the best moments of MUNICH: THE EDGE OF WAR, which is also bolstered by
the solid performances by both MacKay and Niewohner, who have to do most
of the film's heavy lifting by ringing out as much suspense as possible in
the most modestly scaled scenes. Unfortunately,
too much of this story really does a few of the female characters a grave
disservice, like Jessica Brown Fidley's one-note and clichéd wife on the
homefront that's concerned that her working husband is letting work ruin
their marriage. Faring even
worse is Sandra Huller's terribly underwritten role as Hartmann's former
lover that went on to become a co-conspirator of his.
She appears in the film...then disappears...but then re-appears
when the screenplay deems it convenient.
It's sad that the women here are so egregiously short-changed.
One other thing
bothered me greatly: The back-story behind Hartmann's political
enlightenment that changed him from a scary radical to a freedom fighter
isn't given much focus by Schwochow or Power here (that would have almost
made for an infinitely more fascinating movie than what we were given
here). I'm at a bit of a
crossroads when it comes to recommending MUNICH: THE EDGE OF WAR: I
admired the atypical type of historical war thriller that it was trying to
be and - as a history major - I found it to be understatedly intoxicating
(not to mention timely, with recent reports of Russia's potential invasion
of Ukraine). And a top flight and in-the-zone Irons playing a thanklessly
tricky role makes this film endlessly watchable throughout.
Still, there's no denying the film's nagging faults, not to mention
that it's all pretty workmanlike and doesn't have much of an aesthetic
identity (it feels like a TV movie of the week versus something deserving
of the silver screen consumption). If
this was a cinema-only release and I (or you, of course) had to pay to see
it then I'd probably give it two and a half stars.
Since it's streaming on Netflix for free (well, kind of) and you
can watch it comfortably at home then I'd begrudgingly give it three
stars, but with reservations.