Director: Christian Schwochow
Writers: Ben Power
Stars: George MacKay, Jannis Niewöhner, Jeremy Iron
Synopsis: A British diplomat travels to Munich in the run-up to World War II, where a former classmate of his from Oxford is also en route, but is working for the German government.
Not to be confused with the similarly-named Steven Spielberg film Munich, director Christian Schwochow’s historical drama Munich: The Edge of War doesn’t engage itself with doling out punishment for evil behavior in the past, as much as it tells a story of those who try to stop evil before it can even start.
Based on the 2017 historical novel Munich, written by Robert Harris, Munich: The Edge of War introduces us to friends Hugh (George MacKay) and Paul (Jannis Niewöhner) , a British and a German who are graduating from Oxford in 1932, and are enjoying their last days of college together before they go their separate ways out into the world. Six years later, the friends are in very different places and the world is a very different place. Hugh is working as the executive assistant to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Jeremy Irons) and Paul is a diplomat who is in the new German Chancellor Adolf Hitler’s inner circle. Despite being trusted by Hitler, Paul is not as trusting of the new German leader, especially as he senses his larger global aspirations. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Chamberlain is being pressured as to how to handle Hitler’s threats towards Czechoslovakia, whom Hitler feels is a territory that rightfully belongs to Germany. As Chamberlain grows closer and closer to allowing Hitler to take Czechoslovakia if it promises an end to any future war, Paul decides he needs to reach out to Hugh to see if he can convince Chamberlain to see Hitler for what he really is and to not agree to any such arrangement. Can the fate of the world be altered by two idealistic friends who dare to wade into very deep and dangerous waters?
If only the film were that exciting. While screenwriter Ben Power does his best to set the scene for Chamberlain to make his ultimate decision in a dramatic way, the film unfortunately fails to rise to the espionage thriller that it tries to be. The whole conflict, and thereby the tension, rests in the can-they-do-it nature of the plot, but because we know how things play out, we know they fail before they even try. So, to compensate for the lack of any true narrative drama, Power drives hard into the philosophical questions and hesitations, particularly for Chamberlain, a figure that history has ultimately not judged kindly. Irons does well to reflect how Chamberlain’s good intentions are subverted by his naiveté, which allows him to fall prey to Hitler’s bad intentions and inauthentic promises. But it only makes you long for a deeper dive into Chamberlain’s gullibility, making you wish the filmmakers had utilized the actor they had in Irons to really explore and illuminate Chamberlain’s motivations, especially since his actions resulted in such catastrophic consequences for the entire world.
Instead, Munich: The Edge of War chooses to focus the most on Hugh, a typically British stuffed shirt devoid of any true emotion other than general bewilderment. He supposedly engaged in enthusiastic political and philosophical debate with Paul when they were in college, but you wouldn’t know it seeing Hugh behave like a wet noodle both at work and at home, where his wife and child hardly even know him. It’s the most frustrating to see Hugh come to life around Paul but completely apathetic and useless everywhere else. If there’s something about Paul that particularly lights a fire under Hugh, that would have been nice to explore. In fact, that may have made a better film; but instead, Hugh comes across as little more than a plot device.
Power and Schwochow save their best for Paul, who is the far more interesting and charismatic character. While George MacKay may be the more familiar actor, Niewöhner steals the show with his much more compelling performance as Paul, a patriot who is legitimately fearful of what is coming if nobody stops Hitler. While it’s easy to root for the one guy in the movie who sees Hitler for what he is, Niewöhner manages to paint just enough shade in his character to make us question his own motivations—are they personal, or are they political? Does it even matter? Paul’s anguish at his own lack of courage speaks volumes, and serves as a moving stand-in for the world as a whole, who may have known what Hitler was, but was too fearful, hesitant or naïve to take action against him when it mattered most.
There is much to salvage in Munich: The Edge of War, once you get used to its languid pace and dry, philosophical bent. It can even be forgiven for wasting the great August Diehl in yet another stereotypically evil Nazi (is there another kind?) role. But one can’t help but see the film as an opportunity wasted to explore much more deeply a figure and a moment in history that may be largely misunderstood. Hindsight allows us to easily spot heroes and villains in history, but the much more interesting tales to be told are those that aren’t as clearly defined. Perhaps a tale of those who made wrong decisions for the right reasons and those who hesitated in the face of incalculable consequence. Munich: The Edge of War comes close, but, in the end, leaves too much still to be told.