Neville Chamberlain is finally being shown some love.
Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister from 1937-1940, is generally viewed in history as the guy who for reasons of keeping the peace sat back and let Adolf Hitler gear up for war without doing anything to stop him, and it wasn’t until Winston Churchill became Prime Minister in 1940 that the United Kingdom took back its fighting spirit and met the Nazis head on.
But MUNICH: THE EDGE OF WAR (2021), a new movie which premiered on Netflix last month, tells a different side of Chamberlain’s story, showing how his unrelenting determination to avoid war actually bought time for the United Kingdom to prepare for war with Hitler.
Now, Chamberlain’s story isn’t the main one told in MUNICH: THE EDGE OF WAR, but it’s the most fascinating one.
MUNICH: THE EDGE OF WAR is actually the story of two friends, Hugh Legat (George MacKay) and Paul von Hartmann (Jannis Niewohner), who met at Oxford and became best friends until they had a falling out over Adolf Hitler and the new Nazi regime. Paul believes Hitler is good for Germany and is making Germans feel great about their country again, but Hugh sees him as a racist monster.
Six years later, in 1938, Hugh finds himself working as a civil servant at the office of the Prime Minister, where he reads, edits speeches, and translates for Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Jeremy Irons). Tensions are high as Hitler plans to invade Czechoslovakia, and the invasion seems imminent, but Chamberlain refuses to give up on diplomacy, citing his memories of the brutality of the previous war, and predicting that any future war would be far worse. Unable to get a response from Hitler, Chamberlain turns to Hitler’s trusted friend Mussolini, hoping that the Italian leader would get Hitler to the negotiating table. On the eve of the invasion, Hitler backs down and agrees to meet with Chamberlain for peace talks.
Meanwhile, in Germany, Paul has had a change of heart about Hitler, after the Nazis brutalize his Jewish girlfriend. His position keeps him in Hitler’s inner circle, and as such, he is secretly working with a small group that wants to remove the Fuhrer from power. A top-secret document makes its way into his possession, which outlines Hitler’s true plans for Europe in specific detail, proving that Hitler isn’t interested in peace but in expanding the German empire and plans to use force to do it. Paul realizes that this peace meeting with Chamberlain is exactly what Hitler wants, as it will buy him time to build up for future invasions.
MI6 receives word that Paul has this document and that he wants to turn it over to Hugh so that Hugh can get it to Chamberlain, and they pretty much order Hugh to meet with Paul and get the document without telling any of his superiors, which sets up the second half of the movie, as Hugh and Paul navigate in the shadows around the Nazis, while Chamberlain and Hitler meet to sign a peace accord to prevent the invasion of Czechoslovakia.
MUNICH: THE EDGE OF WAR is a fascinating movie that I really enjoyed, a piece of historical fiction that makes for compelling viewing and gives a nuanced interpretation of Neville Chamberlain while doing it.
Both Hugh and Paul were not real people, but they are loosely based on British scholar A. L. Rowse, and German diplomat Adam von Trott zu Solz, who were friends at Oxford. The screenplay by Ben Power, based on the novel Munich by Robert Harris, is entertaining and intriguing throughout. I’m not sure how historically accurate it is, but the story it tells in this movie is a good one.
The best part is its depiction of Neville Chamberlain, a man who is shown here with an unrelenting passion for keeping the peace. It’s a noble attribute and is one that today a person would be hard-pressed to argue against.
It also helps that Jeremy Irons is playing Neville Chamberlain. As one might expect, Irons delivers the best performance in the movie. He captures the elderly Chamberlain’s devotion to peace, and the physical toll it takes on him, as he has to go toe to toe with Hitler, but it’s a task that in spite of his age he is up for, and Irons makes Chamberlain a leader that people can rally around, which is not the way history has so far remembered Chamberlain, who is often viewed as a weak Prime Minister. And it was much more satisfying to watch Irons play Chamberlain here than his recent portrayal of Alfred in the Ben Affleck BATMAN movies.
Both George Mackay as Hugh and Jannis Niewohner as Paul are also excellent. Mackay perfectly captures the tensions that Hugh feels, and he looks like he should be chain smoking throughout the movie. He makes Hugh so stressed out the intensity becomes almost palpable. Previously we saw MacKay playing a character fighting in World War I, as he played a soldier in 1917 (2019).
Niewohner, who hails from Germany, plays Paul as an intense, volatile character whose passion for Germany is so laser-focused that it enables him to see through Hitler and view him as someone whose interests are not aligned with what is best for the country.
MUNICH: THE EDGE OF WAR was directed by Christian Schwochow, who does a masterful job. The film is elegant to look at, with its depiction of 1938 Munich, as the sets, costumes, and attention to detail are superb. The story is riveting, and this is an historical drama that is much more of a suspense vehicle than a straight narrative. It’s edge of your seat material.
Not everything works about the film. While there are female characters in the movie, none of them take center stage. I realize the plot is really about Hugh and Paul, and Neville Chamberlain, but the supporting female characters in the movie are not fleshed out at all.
There’s also a key scene that I didn’t buy, and it comes when Paul finds himself alone in a room with Hitler, and he has a gun, and he intends to assassinate the Fuhrer, but he doesn’t. The reason he gives later didn’t fly, not after we perceived him as the explosive, driven young man who not only wanted to save Germany at all costs, but who held Hitler personally responsible for the brutalization of his girlfriend. The scene just didn’t work for me. Everything we learned about Paul told us he would have pulled that trigger.
But overall, I really enjoyed MUNICH: THE EDGE OF WAR. It’s on par with DARKEST HOUR (2017), the film which won Gary Oldman an Oscar for his portrayal of Winston Churchill, and in terms of spy intrigue, it’s nearly as tense as Steven Spielberg’s BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015) and the recent THE COURIER (2020) starring Benedict Cumberbatch, even though both these films were spy stories about the Cold War and not World War II.
MUNICH: THE EDGE OF WAR is a superior piece of historical fiction, an edge of your seat espionage tale, that touts the value of diplomacy over war, and poses the intriguing question of who benefitted more from the time bought by the peace agreement between Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler. The film argues it was Chamberlain, that his intervention helped give nations time to be ready for when Hitler would ultimately mobilize his war machine a year later. And seeing that the Nazis lost the war, that argument seems sound.