What we’ve got here is a work of historical fiction. Munich: The Edge of War is a narrative set against the backdrop of real events, involving actual historical figures. But the protagonists themselves and their stories are entirely fictional, though perfectly plausible. So let’s start with the facts.
In 1938, Adolf Hitler (played here by Ulrich Matthes) threatened to invade Europe. His first target was Czechoslovakia, though there were treaties to consider. Anyone going to war with the Czechs at the time would also be going to war with the French and the British, and that potentially meant a sequel to the Great War that only wrapped up a couple of decades prior. In a desperate attempt to avert open conflict, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Jeremy Irons) tried to arrange a compromise between the French and the Germans: Hitler could invade the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia, on condition that he made no attempt to expand further.
This agreement was signed on September 30th of 1938, at a conference in Munich between the British, the French, the Italians, and the Germans. Note that the Czechs weren’t invited. Long story short, Hitler broke his word and Czechoslovakia was under Nazi rule by March 1939. Hitler then went on to invade Poland on September of 1939, which was more or less the start of World War II. Thus the Munich Agreement only delayed the inevitable for a solid year.
As for Chamberlain, the man had staked so much of his reputation on building a lasting peace with Germany that his career was shattered when war broke out. He resigned in disgrace as Prime Minister in May of 1940, and he died of colon cancer that November.
So much for the facts of the case. Now let’s get to the actual narrative of the movie.
Our protagonists are the British Hugh Legat and the German Paul von Hartmann, respectively played by George MacKay and Jannis Niewohner. We first meet them in 1932, when they’re good friends and Oxford classmates. Cut to six years later and the two have fallen out for reasons I won’t get into here. What’s important is that Legat is now a personal secretary to Prime Minister Chamberlain while von Hartmann is a translator in the German foreign office.
The kicker is that von Hartmann is secretly conspiring with the German resistance to try and take down Hitler. Even better — again, I’m making a long story short here — von Hartmann comes into possession of a document which serves as ironclad proof that Hitler intends to take over the world and he’ll break whatever laws or treaties stand in his way. Thus von Hartmann’s friends in the resistance pull some strings to get him to Munich so he can pass the document along to the British. More specifically, to his estranged friend in the British Prime Minister’s office. Thus the two of them have to work together in acts of international espionage and treason to try and stop a worldwide bloodbath.
Right off the bat, it’s important to note that the filmmakers are always careful to portray the characters as fallible and flawed human beings. It’s not just a matter of math and protocols and weighing sacrifices against some “greater good”, it’s about how all of those interact with the needs and psychology of the people involved. The most obvious and complex example is with Legat and von Hartmann themselves, both of whom genuinely want to like each other, and have a compelling reason to work together, but they have so much personal baggage to sort out before that can happen and they just don’t have the time for it. Moreover, they have a difficult time doing what needs to be done because of all the red tape in the way, thus they have to grapple with the question of which laws they can get away with breaking, and which infractions could potentially set them back or get them shot.
That being said, there’s a lot of weighing sacrifices on a macro level as well. Even before the conference in Munich, we flash back to when Hitler was first running for office — everyone in Germany knows he’s an asshole, but he’s an asshole confronting the very real fact that Germany has been consistently stomped into the ground ever since they took the heat for the Great War. If it means electing a leader with a very real shot at restoring Germany to its former glory, who cares about a few overblown racist allegations that probably won’t lead to anything?
Of course, we know how this story ends in 2022. But more importantly (as portrayed in the film), they knew how this was going to end even back in 1938. Everybody KNEW that Hitler couldn’t be trusted. Everybody KNEW that he was a monster, and another war was coming. But nobody knew exactly when, and there was still a chance that war could be delayed for a month, a year, a decade, or even (gods willing) indefinitely.
What is that chance worth? Is it worth fooling the public to go along with a doomed plan? Is it worth sacrificing a few hundred Czech lives to save millions all around the world? Is it worth placating and legitimizing a genocidal maniac to keep him quiet in the short term, when the long-term ramifications in the vague future are unknowable yet potentially catastrophic?
History has painted Neville Chamberlain as a coward who sucked up to Hitler instead of stopping the Nazi regime when he had the chance. But as Irons’ portrayal says in the movie, “I can only play the cards that I’m dealt.” As portrayed in the movie, he fought for peace even when war was inevitable, and the film argues that his year of stalled time helped Britain prepare for — and eventually win — World War II. As to whether that’s integrity or stupidity, you be the judge.
There’s one point in the movie when Chamberlain remarks that he would willingly sacrifice his own life for the sake of world peace. There’s no doubt that he knows this deal could end his political career and make him a disgrace in the eyes of history, and there’s no doubt he would accept that for world peace as well. But the film leaves open the question of when the price is no longer worth it.
Of course, a lot of that depends on the chances that the best-case scenario is likely, or even possible. In other words, it comes down to hope. And to paraphrase a character in the film, “hope is waiting for somebody else to take action.” It’s tough to argue the point, especially when false hope would be so destructive in this particular scenario. But when taking action could be suicidal at best and apocalyptic at worst… really, what’s to be done at all?
This is a movie with a great many hard-hitting moral dilemmas and timely statements about global politics, feeling powerless in the face of inevitable disaster, how to deal with a megalomaniacal bastard in power, and so on. It’s a good movie… but not a great one. There’s definitely a feeling like something’s missing here.
Compare this to In the Loop, which explored similar subject matter and did so with god-tier dialogue and phenomenal satirical bite. We’ve also got 1917, another film in which George MacKay plays a lowly British soldier tasked with convincing the higher-ups to avoid a bloody catastrophe, but that movie had a dazzling one-shot gimmick and a bevvy of celebrity guest stars to spice things up.
By comparison, this one sadly doesn’t have anything in the way of novelty or innovation that would’ve pushed it over the top into something memorable. The best this movie has is Jeremy Irons, which is rock-solid casting even if he isn’t doing anything he hasn’t already done and done better elsewhere. MacKay and Niewohner both anchor the film well enough, but they have the misfortune of playing people who are supposed to blend into the background by nature of their professions.
Alas, I was thoroughly unimpressed with Matthes’ portrayal of Hitler. Everyone is trying their absolute damnedest to portray Hitler as a terrifying psychopath at the height of his power, but Matthes simply doesn’t have the screen presence to sell it. Another unfortunate misfire is Jessica Brown Findlay in the role of Legat’s wife. I get that the filmmakers were trying to portray Legat’s marital problems as an unfortunate side effect of his work, and it would theoretically play well into the conflict of world politics and human psychology I discussed earlier. Alas, Findlay and MacKay can’t find the necessary chemistry and the whole angle falls flat.
Though I will happily give kudos to August Diehl, who plays a genuinely scary Nazi bastard with sadistic aplomb.
Munich: The Edge of War is one of those unfortunate films that’s merely good when it could have, should have, and so badly wanted to be better. It’s a fascinating look at this particular time in the prelude to WWII, using the time period to ask hard questions and make tough statements that are highly relevant in the modern day. Jeremy Irons delivers a wonderful performance, though it’s sadly too much like what we’ve already seen before and nobody else in the cast is on his level, which is regrettably emblematic of the film as a whole.
It’s sad that the film won’t come anywhere close to Oscar glory and it’ll be forgotten within a month, because it deserves better than that. Perhaps not much better, but better nonetheless.