Munich: The Edge of War – film review

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Munich: The Edge of War and the novel upon which it is based.

Munich: The Edge of War had been on my list of things to watch since last year. It was initially expected to come to Netflix in 2021, but that was pushed back to January 2022. The film made its debut on Netflix a few days ago, and as a history buff I was genuinely interested to see what its take would be on one of the most significant events leading to the outbreak of World War II.

Like many Brits of my generation, I have a family connection to the war. My grandfather served in the British army, having volunteered shortly after the official declaration of war in September 1939. He spent almost four years in a prisoner of war camp after being captured, and my grandmother spent most of the war by herself in London – with bombs raining down! So aside from my general interest in all things historical, I really do feel a family tie to the events of this era.

My grandparents would have been familiar with street scenes like this.

Munich: The Edge of War was not what I was expecting. All I really knew about the film before I sat down to watch it was that it intended to depict the events surrounding the 1938 Munich Agreement, with Jeremy Irons playing the role of now-infamous British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. But the film used those events as a backdrop rather than the main event, and instead told a fictional story of two junior civil servants, setting up an unexpectedly tense spy thriller with some heavy moments of characterisation and drama.

I’m always a little uncomfortable about fictionalising real-world events. Inserting fictional characters alongside real people – especially people who may still be alive or who may have living relatives – can feel a bit perverse, as if writers and filmmakers are trivialising the stories of actual people, or instilling false narratives for the sake of entertainment. There are many examples of how this can go wrong, and how fictionalised versions of real people can be completely different from how they were in real life.

Academy Award-winner Jeremy Irons took on the role of Neville Chamberlain.

In the case of Munich: The Edge of War, I think the film generally avoided that pitfall. It did so, however, by having a completely different focus than I was expecting – one in which very few real-life individuals played significant roles. Even Chamberlain himself, the portrayal of whom had been a big part of the film’s pre-release marketing, was relegated to a supporting role. Chamberlain only really had one big fictionalised moment; the rest of the time he was playing the role we might’ve been expecting.

I’ve always rated Jeremy Irons highly as an actor. His portrayals in films as diverse as The Lion King and The French Lieutenant’s Woman have been fantastic, and of course he’s an Academy Award winner. He definitely brought a much needed gravitas to the role of Neville Chamberlain, and despite the plot of the film focusing primarily on events elsewhere, Munich: The Edge of War was definitely the better for Irons’ portrayal of one of history’s most interesting and, still, disliked figures.

Prime Minister Chamberlain gives a famous radio address.

Neville Chamberlain and the Munich Agreement depicted in Munich: The Edge of War long ago became bywords for appeasement and foreign policy failures. Contemporary political figures of all stripes are wary of comparisons to Chamberlain, and his name is invoked on both sides of the Atlantic when politicians and leaders try to deal with difficult foreign policy situations.

Some of that criticism is earned, of course. But as with any historical figure, there’s more to Neville Chamberlain than one half-baked narrative, and this is something that, to its credit, Munich: The Edge of War touches on. There hasn’t really been an historical reappraisal of Chamberlain and the overall policy of appeasement, and the film is too short and has too many other balls to juggle to really add much to that conversation anyway. But in its presentation of Chamberlain, we at least catch a glimpse of how the situation might’ve appeared from his perspective.

We all know the history surrounding this moment, but the film showed it in a slightly different light.

Neville Chamberlain became Prime Minister in 1937, more than a year after the event that historians widely agree was the “last best chance” to stop Hitler’s aggressive policies and delay or prevent a war. This was, of course, the reoccupation of the Rheinland by German forces, and it came during the tenure of Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, who had set the tone of appeasement during much of the preceding couple of years.

Chamberlain’s remark in Munich: The Edge of War about “playing the cards [he] was dealt” can be seen through this lens. In that sense, the film takes more of a pro-Chamberlain view than many others dealing with the same subject matter would; the Munich Agreement is supposed to be the embodiment of the failures of both appeasement in general and Chamberlain personally, yet director Christian Schwochow – and Robert Harris, the author of the novel upon which the film was based – present both sympathetically.

Chamberlain had to play the hand of cards that he had been dealt – that’s one of the messages the film wants to convey.

Munich: The Edge of War chooses to portray the Munich Agreement not as the pinnacle of failure, but as a temporary reprieve, one which was cleverly employed by Chamberlain to stall for time. Chamberlain comes across not as the bumbling idiot of history who couldn’t see Hitler and the Nazis for what they were, but instead as someone with limited options who did the best he could to avoid an immediate conflict that he felt certain would’ve doomed Britain to defeat.

Whether this portrayal is fair or not is left up to the viewer, naturally, but this is the take that the film offers. It’s still possible to sit through the tense moments in the run-up to the treaty being offered while acknowledging the ultimate futility of it all, but doing so requires us to step out of Munich: The Edge of War and consider where the film sits in the history of the real world. Taken solely on its own merits, these moments of tension and drama work – even though some could feel a little forced.

George MacKay as Hugh Legat.

The role of Adolf Hitler is always going to be a challenging one to cast and to play, and it was here that I felt Munich: The Edge of War hit a stumbling block. Ulrich Matthes felt miscast in the role, and while he did his best to play up the sense of Hitler as a menace, the portrayal never quite landed for me. 1938 should see Adolf Hitler at the absolute zenith of his power, yet in Munich: The Edge of War he somehow felt small; the presence he should’ve had came more from the script than the screen presence.

Hitler was also the only character in the film whose costumes seemed ill-fitting. Ulrich Matthes is not especially short, but he does have a rather slender frame, and several of the costumes he wore as Hitler seemed rather too large for him, giving one of history’s worst dictators the appearance of a schoolboy whose parents had bought him a suit he was expected to “grow into.” Combined with a less-than-stellar performance, this robbed the character of much of the gravitas needed to make the moments where he was centre-stage feel like they mattered. Though Hitler got comparatively little screen time, his actions were the driving force behind both halves of the plot, and we as the audience needed to be able to take him seriously enough to make the rest of the film work. As it is, the best I can say is that this key character didn’t quite fall to the level of damaging the rest of the film – but the way he came across on screen did nothing to elevate it.

Ulrich Matthes as Adolf Hitler.

So we come to the junior civil servants, the fictional people upon whose shoulders the real story of Munich: The Edge of War was carried. I really liked the contrast between the two men – Paul von Hartmann, played by Jannis Niewöhner, and Hugh Legat, played by George MacKay. They came from similar worlds, as the scenes showing them together at Oxford University showed, but they ended up on very different philosophical and political paths, largely (but not entirely) due to circumstances beyond their control.

In a sense, the stories of von Hartmann and Legat stand to represent hundreds of thousands of bureaucrats and minor functionaries on both sides of the war – and by extension the millions of enlisted and conscripted men who ultimately fought in the conflict. People from all social classes, all backgrounds, and all walks of life were ripped out of their surroundings and pitted against one another by great powers and by forces beyond their control. Legat and von Hartmann were swept along by circumstances in their home countries, driven apart by fanatical politics, but ultimately came back together to try to do the right thing. Though their stories were fictional, they represent millions of untold stories of real people in similar situations.

The fictional stories of Legat and von Hartmann can be seen as representing millions of real people throughout the war.

Both of the actors put in exceptional performances. I truly bought into von Hartmann’s enthusiastic and impassioned defence of Hitler when he and Legat argued in a flashback sequence. Jannis Niewöhner brought that moment to life, showing the burning passion that many politically active young people have. It was misguided, of course, as von Hartmann would later come to realise, but as a believable performance of a young man in Germany in that time period I thought it was absolutely outstanding.

George MacKay is someone I’m familiar with from the film 1917, and he put in just as complex a performance in Munich: The Edge of War as he had in the title which had won him critical acclaim a couple of years ago. It isn’t fair to compare two different characters, but in this case I definitely felt echoes of William Schofield (his 1917 character) in Hugh Legat. Both men find themselves thrust into difficult and dangerous circumstances for which they are ill-prepared, and both do their best to rise to meet the challenges in front of them.

George MacKay put in a solid performance as a man who finds himself facing an unexpected and difficult task.

Legat and von Hartmann were both granted love interests by Munich: The Edge of War, and here is perhaps where we ran into a fairly typical issue when condensing the story of a novel into the runtime of a single film. Neither Legat’s wife nor the character of Lena, whose injury seems to have been a driving force behind von Hartmann turning against Hitler, felt well-developed. I’d go so far as to call both extraneous to the plot; the minor roles they played didn’t feel necessary to inform either Legat or von Hartmann, and didn’t really serve to accomplish much of anything.

I’d argue that, in a film about Adolf Hitler and the outbreak of World War II, practically no fictional character needs more motivation to stop Hitler than “because it’s Hitler,” and with the revelation of Lena’s attack and disability not coming until the film was practically over and the bulk of the spy thriller plot had concluded, it didn’t really achieve what it intended anyway. It was, at best, background – and there’s nothing wrong with fleshing out characters and giving them family connections or love interests in a general sense. But in Munich: The Edge of War it was, perhaps, an unnecessary inclusion.

Jannis Niewöhner as Paul von Hartmann.

With the exception of the aforementioned costuming problem, I felt that the visual side of Munich: The Edge of War was handled very well. The few uses of visual effects (such as for a steam train) worked as intended, and the exterior and interior sets all succeeded at transporting me to the 1930s. I particularly felt that the main set used for the Munich conference captured the spirit of Nazi architecture well, and felt sufficiently imposing.

Munich: The Edge of War was definitely the better for the inclusion of German alongside English as its spoken languages. Seeing German characters speaking to one another in German adds a sense of realism that’s important to a piece like this, and switching back and forth between the two languages worked well. Having both principal characters being fluent in both languages allowed for them to mix it up, speaking German in some circumstances and English in others.

The arrival of the delegations at the conference venue.

To wrap things up, Munich: The Edge of War isn’t going to have the cut-through of a film like 2004’s Downfall. In order to appreciate what it has to offer, I think you really need to have at least a passing interest in the Second World War and the events the film aims to depict. Some historical dramas and thrillers can cross over and find mainstream appeal; I believe that Munich: The Edge of War simply isn’t that kind of film. That isn’t to say it’s bad by any means – I had an enjoyable time with it. It just isn’t quite on the same level as films like Downfall.

I arrived expecting to find a film that focused more on Chamberlain himself, but found instead a perfectly entertaining spy thriller that managed to have a few novelties to offer fans of the genre as a whole. The newness of both spies, the real historical backdrop, and the dual nature of its protagonists makes Munich: The Edge of War stand out somewhat in a genre that can feel repetitive and samey. Those elements carried the film far enough to make it an enjoyable experience.

I’d have liked to have seen more of Jeremy Irons’ portrayal of Chamberlain, as I felt he was somewhat limited in the screen time he had in a film that had another story to tell. Other than that, Munich: The Edge of War was entertaining. It was tense enough and dramatic enough in the right places, told a unique story, and gave us a small but different look at an historical figure that we’ve been told for more than eighty years we should vehemently disapprove of.

Munich: The Edge of War is available to stream now on Netflix. Munich: The Edge of War is the copyright of Netflix and/or Turbine Studios. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.