Munich — The Edge of War opens in 1932, at Oxford University, where three graduating students are toasting their futures as a part of the “mad generation” that’s come to age in the aftermath of World War I. Six years later, two of them will reunite as the world appears to be on the verge of another great war.
One of them, Hugh Legat (George McKay), is a secretary to the English Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain (Jeremy Irons). Chamberlain, haunted by the death and destruction of the Great War, is convinced that Europe can have “peace in our time,” through a policy of negotiation and appeasement. He is aware of the men who have come to power in Italy and Germany and he’s certainly heard the rumors that they are planning on conquering Europe themselves. However, Chamberlain is almost in denial about the reality of the situation, at one point suggesting that Hugh write a polite letter to Mussolini requesting that Mussolini tell Hitler to tone down his rhetoric.
Hugh’s classmate, Paul von Hartmann (Jannis Niewöhner), returned to Germany after graduating from Oxford. At first, he was an enthusiastic backer of Hitler and the Nazi party. He was rewarded with a position as a translator in the Foreign Office. However, Paul has since become disillusioned with Hitler and is painfully aware of the anti-Semitism that has become a part of everyday life in Berlin. Paul regularly meets with a group of generals who are plotting a coup against Hitler. The generals believe that, if they allow Hitler to invade Czechoslovakia, the German people will rise up in order to avoid being led into another war and that they will cheer as the generals march into Hitler’s office and place him under arrest. Paul worries that the generals are being naïve. Adding to Paul’s problems is a former childhood friend named Franz Sauer (August Diehl). Sauer is a new member of the SS and he has a disconcerting habit of showing up anywhere that Paul happens to be, almost as if he is aware that Paul is not the dedicated civil servant that he pretends to be. When Paul receives a stolen document that reveals the details of Hitler’s true plans for Europe, he and Hugh team up to try to keep Chamberlain from singing the Munich Agreement.
Looking over the events that led to World War II, one question that historians frequently ask is why did Neville Chamberlain consistently refuse to stand up to Hitler despite Hitler’s growing acts of aggression. Why did Chamberlain knowingly turn a blind eye to every treaty and agreement that Hitler broke or ignored? Why, with Hitler openly declaring his plans to conquer Europe, did Chamberlain and so many others insist that Hitler’s actions would somehow be different from his words? Was Chamberlain just naïve or was he, like so many others who had been traumatized by the Great War, in willful denial about the inevitability of conflict with Hitler? Was Chamberlain just a politician trying to keep a war-weary public happy or did he truly believe that signing an agreement with Hitler would somehow lead to “peace in our time?” Munich — The Edge of War suggests that all of the above may be true, with Jeremy Irons playing Chamberlain as being an old school establishmentarian, one with sincere intentions but also one who is incapable of truly understanding the new reality that has been brought about by the desolation of World War I. As played by Irons, Chamberlain is occasionally sympathetic but, even more frequently, he’s obstinate in his short-sightedness and his insistence that he alone understands how to deal with Hitler. He’s not necessarily a bad man but he’s definitely not the right man for the times.
Of course, the majority of the film focuses not on Chamberlain but instead on Paul and Hugh. George McKay and Jannis Niewöhner both give good performances as two civil servants who know the truth but find it impossible to get anyone to listen to them. Niewöhner is especially effective as Paul, capturing not only his disillusionment with Germany but also his disgust for himself for having been previously fooled by Hitler’s rhetoric. Like Chamberlain, Paul was also in denial about Hitler’s true beliefs. The difference is that Paul has learned from his mistake and is now desperately trying to reveal the truth, even if no one else wants to hear it.
It’s a good and effective film, one that works both as a historical drama and an espionage thriller. The film is at its best when it focuses on what daily life is like when a nation is living in the shadow of the possibility of war. Hugh comes home to discover his son wearing a gas mask and he has to convince his wife to leave London for the weekend, even though he can’t specifically tell her why. Meanwhile, Paul lives in a Berlin that’s full of imposing architecture and seemingly happy people but with a shadow of menace hanging over every street corner. The city’s new buildings, built to celebrate Hitler’s vision of a new Germany, are all disturbingly pristine, as if they only exist so that evil can hide behind their impressive facades. And in the background of every scene in Berlin, there are the uniformed men with their red armbands and their haughty glares.
It’s said that hindsight is 20/20 and, indeed, it’s easy to look at someone like Neville Chamberlain and dismiss him as just being a tragically failed and foolish politician. And there is definitely an argument to be made that he was. (That’s certainly how I tend to view him.) Still, Munich — The Edge of War does a good job of capturing not only the feeling of a world on the verge of war but also the motivations of those who closed their eyes to what was coming and also to those who did not. That we know that Paul and Hugh’s efforts are ultimately to be for naught adds a poignant sadness to the scenes of them trying to get someone to listen to them but it also makes for a powerful viewing experience. How many eyes were open in the 30s? How many eyes are closed today?