‘Munich – The Edge of War’ Review: An exhilarating spy thriller despite clichés

A Potpourri of Vestiges Review

By Murtaza Ali Khan

Over the decades, we have witnessed countless films set in the backdrop of the Second World War. The new Netflix film ‘Munich – The Edge of War,’ directed by Christian Schwochow, is the latest in the series. Based on a 2017 novel titled ‘Munich’ by the world renowned writer of historical fiction Robert Harris, ‘Munich – The Edge of War’ is set in September 1938 over four days in the context of the Munich Agreement, which was signed by the German Chancellor Adolf Hitler, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, Italy’s Duce Benito Mussolini and French Prime Minister Édouard Daladier. Widely regarded as Britain’s last act of appeasement towards Hitler’s continued aggression, Munich Agreement provided cession to Germany of the Sudeten German territory of Czechoslovakia, despite the existence of a 1924 alliance agreement and 1925 military pact between France and the Czechoslovak Republic. That’s precisely why it is also described as the Munich Betrayal.

‘Munich – The Edge of War,’ starring Jeremy Irons, George MacKay and Jannis Niewöhner in pivotal roles, unfolds as an espionage thriller involving two friends and former Oxford classmates, a British civil servant named Hugh Legat working in Chamberlain’s office in London and a German diplomat named Paul von Hartmann working as a translator in the Foreign Office in Berlin, who find themselves at the center of a high stake political subterfuge in Munich as Chamberlain desperately tries to appease Hitler with the hope of preventing another war. Both Legat and von Hartmann are of course fictional characters and so the challenge is to seamlessly place them in the historical setting of the Munich Agreement while simultaneously exploiting their inclusion for the purpose of thrill and suspense. And that’s precisely where Robert Harris’ brilliance as a writer comes into play. Anyone who has watched ‘The Ghost Writer’ and ‘An Officer and a Spy,’ his famous collaborations with Roman Polanski, can appreciate Harris’ knack for seamlessly blending reality with fiction often to exhilarating effects. 

Now, it’s well documented that Chamberlain's policy of appeasement allowed Hitler to grow in power unchecked. Instead of taking an aggressive stand against Hitler’s expansionist policy, Chamberlain kept on committing one blunder after another hoping to avert WWII. He could have answered Austria’s call and acted during the annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany on 12 March 1938, but Chamberlain merely sent Hitler a note of protest and in his Cabinet address he shockingly placed blame on both Germany and Austria. After the fall of Austria, the Cabinet's Foreign Policy Committee considered seeking a grand alliance to thwart Germany but the committee strangely chose to advocate that Czechoslovakia be urged to make the best terms it could with Germany, stating that there was little that Britain could do to help the Czechs in the event of a German invasion. The Munich Agreement made it worse as Hitler was presented with the Sudeten territory of Czechoslovakia on a platter. Chamberlain was hoping that Hitler’s expansionism would end with Sudeten but when Germany invaded Poland a year later in September 1939, Chamberlain’s dream of peace came crashing down.

‘Munich – The Edge of War’ presents Chamberlain in a sympathetic light. While he is widely accused of giving Hitler a free run, few have tried to appreciate his commitment to peace. While the Netflix film doesn’t exonerate Chamberlain, it does highlight that his heart was in the right place and his intentions were never questionable. Yes, he did fail to understand Hitler’s true intentions but he nonetheless had a vision to guard his country which he stayed true to. The legendary English actor Jeremy Irons portrays the part of Chamberlain with great conviction. ‘Munich – The Edge of War’ also offers an interesting take on Hitler. Portraying the part with considerable subtlety usually not associated with Hitler, the veteran German Ulrich Matthes succeeds in evoking Hitler’s charisma and zeal without ever engaging in any form of demagoguery the German dictator is notorious for. Seeing Ulrich’s Hitler, it’s easy to understand why the German populace believed in him despite the destructive path he treaded. Hitler’s appeal among the German youth during the 1930s despite the anti-Semitism he propagated is best summed up by the following remark made by an Oxford-educated German man, “Voting for Hitler is not voting against Jews. It's voting for the future.”

Even though the turn of events is mostly known to us, ‘Munich – The Edge of War’ still manages to keep us on the edge of the seat. Yes, it does resort to using clichés and tried and tested tropes associated with spy thrillers, the film nonetheless is not without some truly exhilarating moments. And despite being a work of historical fiction, ‘Munich – The Edge of War’ is quite relevant to the times we live in. It makes for a great double bill along with the HBO miniseries ‘The Plot Against America’.

A version of this review was first published at The Daily Guardian.

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