“With such an unthinking approach to adapting this story for the screen, it feels like there’s no real climax before everything meets an abrupt end.”
World War II has been seen on screen from countless different angles, so it’s rare to have something that appears to have not been covered. The unique angle here is a look at the prelude to history’s deadliest conflict, one that has pretty much been reduced to a historical footnote. Munich: The Edge of War looks at 1938’s British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s (Jeremy Irons) attempt to prevent the beginning of another world war by engaging in peace talks at Munich. Perhaps a reason this event doesn’t seem to have been the focus of a film before is that it seems minor compared to the devastation that follows. The PM famously announces “peace for our time,” but this is superseded by the declaration of war a mere year later. This film tries to alter the perception of Chamberlain as weak by painting him as something of a hero. However, being based on a Robert Harris novel — simply titled Munich — there is naturally a fictional spy plot that threads around the real-world narrative. Despite an intriguing starting point, the result is a mess of styles where drama, thrills, and intelligence all prove to be in short supply.
Chamberlain is unsurprisingly in a prominent position in this tale, but the actual leads are two diplomats on opposite sides who are both determined to stop Hitler (Ulrich Mattes). British diplomat Hugh Legat (George MacKay) and his German counterpart Paul von Hartmann (Jannis Niewöhner) are two distant old friends who end up connecting again due to a crucial document: the secret minutes for a meeting that show Hitler’s desire to subjugate Europe at large. They’re in the position of having to get these words in the hands of the Prime Minister, and attendance of the Munich conference is their opportunity to do so. Both are dour, Hitler-averse civil servants, making not exactly obvious spies or particularly lively ones to follow. This adventure has plenty of potential to entertain though, with the evasion of suspicious superiors, interaction with important figures, and the drama of this duo grappling with their own conflicted consciences.
The film is on rocky ground from the start, being aesthetically unappealing in multiple ways — which seems to be a particular flaw for the largely impressive genre of period dramas. There’s no sense of scope or scale despite this being an internationally set, world-altering series of events, partly because there’s an attempt to throw off the conventions of historical film. The camera is often pulled in tight, frequently shaking, but as a result rarely lingers on the beauty or horror of any scene. Similarly, the score is minimalistic to likely avoid sentimentality, but it simply loses all ability to impact the viewer. Rather than drawing the audience in, the decision to avoid bringing emotion into the film’s construction leaves everything feeling low-key and nearly constantly hollow. This aesthetic emptiness is deepened by how the story seems to barrel along at a tremendously unsuitable clip, giving no room to look at anything beyond what’s necessary for the plot. With such an unthinking approach to adapting this story for the screen, it feels like there’s no real climax before everything meets an abrupt end.
A decisive directorial hand could have allowed for a streamlined tale with a significant message, but the end result is an unfinished work that can’t ever decide what it wants to be. There are elements of spy thrillers present, but they are so intermittent and crudely explored that there’s no chance for tension to bubble up. Emotion tries to make its way in through the characters, but almost always lacks gravitas thanks to the poor pacing and a ham-fisted script. Most crucially, it doesn’t work as a revision of known history, as there is little evidence shown to suggest that Chamberlain’s peace agreement was based on sound judgement. Everything is underdeveloped: the film’s short runtime and lack of confidence behind the edit, script, and even direction of the actors means that nothing stands up against scrutiny. There’s no sign of a cohesive film amongst all these fragmented parts.
Jeremy Irons’ portrayal of Chamberlain is one part of the film that has been widely appreciated, and he does a solid job of making him both shrewd and kindly. However, the film’s clear attempt to reform the public view of such a maligned PM is so obvious that it even undermines Irons’ work. There’s so little room given for any depth that subtlety is not afforded to the story, which means a somewhat uncomfortable, unengaging history lesson for viewers. Munich: The Edge of War does show great stakes involved when armed conflict is on the table, but its failure to edit Robert Harris’s novel into something that works on the screen means that the gravity of these costs is rarely felt. Perhaps there is enough here to entertain viewers who can look past the wasted potential; this will probably prove a springboard to thought for the more historically-minded. But it’s a shame that this fresh cinematic take on the Munich Agreement is, much like the thing itself, so full of empty promises.
Director: Christian Schwochow
Producer: Andrew Eaton
Release Date: January 21, 2022 (Netflix, cinemas)
Cast: Jeremy Irons, George MacKay, Jannis Niewöhner, Sandra Hüller, Liva Lisa Fries, August Diehl, Jessica Brown Findlay, Anjli Mohindra, Ulrich Mattes
Header Image Courtesy of Netflix