A film review by Craig J. Koban January 30, 2022

MUNICH: THE EDGE OF WAR jjj

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 Himmler

Directed by Christian Schwochow  /  Written by Ben Power, based on Robert Harris' novel

ORIGINAL FILM

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. 

Some historical 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 political triumph.   

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 Wuttke), 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 Irons).  

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.   

German filmmaker 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.   

As far as men standing around and talking/negotiating bureaucratic spy dramas go...this one mostly gets the job done.

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