Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | December 29th, 2021
Munich: The Edge of War (Christian Schwochow, 2021) 3 out of 4 stars.
Is there anything new to say about World War II? It remains one of the most heavily trafficked cinematic subjects of all time, with or without the attendant Holocaust narratives. So forgive me if I approach any new movie about the conflict with a jaundiced eye, worried about potential clichés and tired storylines.
Fortunately, director Christian Schwochow (The German Lesson), in his new film, Munich: The Edge of War—adapted from Robert Harris’ 2017 novel Munich—manages to offer something fresh (at least to this viewer), centering the plot on efforts in 1938 to convince then-British Prime Minister (PM) Neville Chamberlain not to appease Adolph Hitler in his desire to annex Czechoslovakia. Long seen as history’s fool, Chamberlain, played by Jeremy Irons (HBO’s Watchmen series), here emerges as a more nuanced figure. Agree or disagree with the take, it at least presents a different perspective, and that’s all to our benefit.
We start in 1932, at England’s Oxford University, where two classmates—the British Hugh Legat (George MacKay, Wolf) and German Paul von Hartman (Jannis Niewöhner, Je Suis Karl)—celebrate their graduation. Fate will bring them together again later, but in the intervening 6 years they go very separate ways. By 1938, Hugh is an up-and-coming assistant to Chamberlain and Paul is a diplomat who has come to regret his initial embrace of the Nazi Party (an embrace which killed the friends’ relationship). As Hitler prepares to invade the neighboring Czechs and reclaim the Sudetenland for the Third Reich, Paul comes across documents which reveal the dictator’s larger plans for European conquest. If he can just get them into the hands of his old acquaintance, perhaps he can stop Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement before the PM signs an agreement with Hitler at the upcoming conference in Munich.
However fanciful the tale, it is bound by actual events (this is no The Man in the High Castle), so we know that Chamberlain and his French counterpart will not heed the warning. Nevertheless, watching the story unfold still proves exciting. MacKay’s Hugh and Niewöhner’s Paul, even if both invented by Harris, make for fully engaging protagonists, as does Irons’ Chamberlain. Joining them are equally capable actors like August Diehl (The Young Karl Marx) and Sandra Hüller (Toni Erdmann), rounding out the cast with appealing complexity. If not all elements come fully together at the end, it is no fault of their own.
I’m not sure I entirely buy the notion that Chamberlain knew exactly what he was doing to buy more time for the United Kingdom to prepare for war, which is what Schwochow and Harris posit. Nor do I quite swallow all the espionage shenanigans. Still, the movie remains thoroughly entertaining, throughout, and ultimately triumphs if, for nothing else, its aforementioned originality. Go Team Chamberlain!
[Releasing in select theaters December 31, 2021 & globally on Netflix January 21, 2022]