Producer: Andrew Eaton Director: Christian Schwochow Screenplay: Ben Power Cast: George MacKay, Jeremy Irons, Jannis Niewohner, Jessica Brown Findley, August Diehl, Sandra Hüller, Alex Jennings, Ulrich Matthes, Robert Bathurst, Liv Lisa Fries, Anjli Mohindra, Mark Lewis Jones and Abigail Cruttenden Distributor: Netflix
British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement in dealing with Adolph Hitler during the Czechoslovak crisis of 1938 is the stuff of debate among historians, most of whom see it as naïve but some arguing that it was defensible in view of the political and military realities of the time. Popular opinion, however, has been less divided. Chamberlain continues to be regarded as misguided and his policy totally wrongheaded. In the minds of most, appeasement is regarded as a mistake that should never be repeated.
But Robert Harris, in the 2017 novel on which Christian Schwochow’s film is based, took a more sanguine view of the often maligned minister and what’s generally characterized as his obtuseness in docilely capitulating to Hitler’s demands for the Sudetenland at the 1938 Munich Conference. He depicts Chamberlain as an idealist bending over backwards to avoid another European war, while pragmatically assessing how he can possibility achieve that end at a time when Britain was definitely ill-prepared to wage one.
That revisionist characterization of the PM is by far the best aspect of “Munich—The Edge of War,” not only for its intrinsic interest but because Chamberlain is played by the redoubtable Jeremy Irons, who infuses the part with old-school dignity leavened by a dash of self-righteous petulance. It’s another in his growing gallery of pitch-perfect performances, though it doesn’t rival his most memorable turns, in “Reversal of Fortune” and “Dead Ringers.”
Unfortunately, the film is not a biographical piece about Chamberlain, or a docu-drama about the Munich Conference at all; it’s a would-be thriller about two young men in the service of their respective governments who try to prevent Chamberlain from signing the Munich Agreement by convincing him that Hitler (played as a grim, forbidding figure by Ulrich Matthes) is a conniving liar with a plan for further conquests, whatever he might promise.
The two are Chamberlain’s private secretary Hugh Legat (George MacKay) and his old Oxford friend Paul von Hartmann (Jannis Niewöhner), now a junior member of the German foreign office. Their friendship had ruptured over Paul’s youthful exuberance over Hitler’s potential to restore his nation’s morale, but now Hartmann has come to question his policies, and when a colleague passes on a secret document detailing the Fuhrer’s real plans, he puts his life at risk by offering to turn it over to the British—but only via Legat, whom he trusts. So Legat is quickly added to Chamberlain’s Munich entourage to undertake the dangerous mission despite his lack of espionage experience.
Most of the plot is devoted to the dance the two must go through during the conference to get the document to Chamberlain and convince him that it proves he should sign no agreement with Hitler, since it would only serve to embolden him further. Unhappily this business is almost completely devoid of tension, despite multiple attempts by Harris and scripter Ben Powers to contrive situations in which one or the other of the two, or both, might be found out and caught. In fact, neither seems in grave danger of ever being discovered, despite their obvious nervousness and suspicious conduct. (Hartmann is even given to conspiring against Hitler, and toward the close plans to kill the Fuhrer with a gun he’s been able to smuggle into a one-on-one meeting with him.) In fact, the Nazi intelligence operation comes across—quite contrary to fact—as a singularly inept outfit, represented by a scowling but singularly ineffectual member of Hitler’s protective detail, one Franz Sauer (August Diehl), who just happens to have been the fellow who bullied Paul when they played soccer together years earlier.
In other respects Paul doesn’t strike one as such a bright guy, either. His abhorrence of the regime’s anti-Jewish policies appears to have emerged only after a friend suffered from it, and he’s apparently surprised by the document’s mention of the concept of “Living Space,” although Hitler had been espousing the idea for more than a decade before 1938.
Still, Hartmann emerges as a heroic figure, especially because Niewöhner’s performance is so committed, if sometimes overwrought. By contrast Legat is pretty much a callow clod, whose personality is defined by the fact that he’s torn between his dedication to his job and his family. (His wife Pamela, played by Jessica Brown Findlay, complains shrilly that he’s neglecting her and their son. She’s but one of the female characters who are treated as pretty negligible, even when they prove decidedly heroic.) MacKay, who’s proven his mettle in “1917,” “True History of the Kelly Gang” and “Wolf,” is simply drab here, unaided by Schwochow’s flat direction, which also affects the whole of the supporting cast and the picture’s leaden pacing (the plodding editing is by Jens Klüber).
“The Edge of War” is a handsome film, nicely shot by Frank Lamm in some impressive locations. The production design by Tim Pannen and costumes by Frauke Firl are both estimable, as is Isobel Waller-Bridge’s imposing score.
But though its portrayal of Chamberlain is admirably provocative, it’s not only because the outcome is foreordained that the film is so lacking in suspense and emotional resonance.