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‘Munich – The Edge of War’ sheds new light on familiar historical events

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The many “What if..”s of history are too enticing a notion not to be explored in literature and cinema time and time again. Munich – The Edge of War weaves an intricate web of fact and fiction against the backdrop of the 1938 Munich Conference as two young diplomats try to un-seal the fate of Europe. The fate of the Sudetenland is being decided by France, Britain, Germany and Italy, while the Czechs are not even invited.

Paul von Hartmann (Jannis Niewöhner), who works in the German Foreign Office, is a former ardent supporter of Nazi ideology turned anti-fascist. With the help of his mistress, military widow Helen Winter (Sandra Hüller), von Hartmann comes into possession of a document which today is known as the Hoßbach Memorandum, detailing Hitler’s plans for a war of expansion. Luckily, he has a (former) friend from his Oxford days on the other side of the negotiations: Hugh Legat (George MacKay), the Prime Minister’s private secretary. Together, they try to convince Neville Chamberlain (Jeremy Irons) not to sign the Munich Agreement.

In merely five years, Germany had been restructured from a dysfunctional democratic republic into a fascist totalitarian state

Many conventional historical accounts paint a picture of Appeasement as an omnishambles, and of Neville Chamberlain as the gullible Prime Minister who gave in to Hitler’s bullying, falling for his deceptive claims that the Sudetenland would be the end of Germany’s territorial demands. The Munich Conference took place just six months after the annexation of Austria, and not even two months before the Night of Broken Glass. In merely five years, Germany had been restructured from a dysfunctional democratic republic into a fascist totalitarian state where antisemitism, antiziganism, racism and homophobia were integral parts of the state’s doctrine and laws, and the lived reality of its citizens.

In other words: there is a certain consensus that at this point, Hitler had already shown his true colours, and that therefore, France and Britain should have known better than to give in to his demands. Munich — The Edge of War makes the case for a reevaluation of the Munich Agreement. It is, in a way, a 129-minute redemption arc in the cinema of history for Neville Chamberlain, who is not portrayed as foolish and naïve, but as wise beyond his time.

Despite Hugh and Paul’s pleas, he takes the pen and signs the Munich Agreement, effectively forcing Czechoslovakia to cede the Sudetenland to Nazi Germany. But in a stroke of genius, Chamberlain arranges another meeting with Hitler at the dictator’s private flat the morning after. They sign another agreement, vowing that Germany and Britain will never go to war with each other again, which Chamberlain triumphantly waves in front of the reporters that wait for him back in Britain. He is content in the knowledge that while war is coming, he has bought Britain valuable time that will ultimately help it to defeat Nazi Germany – or so the film interprets it.

The portrayal of Hitler (Ulrich Matthes) is outstanding, because it does not rely on exaggerating for comic effect or portraying him as a monster

Seeing Munich come to life as the birthplace and ideological capital of National Socialist fascism, complete with large swastika flags ‘adorning’ public buildings, hitler youth members in the streets and SS officers sitting in restaurants, is a deeply unsettling experience, but it speaks to the excellent production design of the entire film. The portrayal of Hitler (Ulrich Matthes) is outstanding, because it does not rely on exaggerating for comic effect or portraying him as a monster.

He is very much depicted as a man: cunning, unscrupulous, and able to “read people like academics read books” (in his own words). In yet another “What if…”, Paul von Hartmann has the opportunity to assassinate him, but fails to do so because he freezes under the hypnotic influence Hitler exerts on him. This is one of the most disturbingly captivating scenes of a film which at times relies too heavily on telling, rather than showing. Much like with Rick and Ilsa’s supposedly magical love story in World-War-II classic Casablanca, viewers are supposed to believe in Paul and Hugh’s transcendent friendship based on two and a half flashbacks.

When German officials say “meine Herren” at various points in the film to address the attendants of the conference, they mean it, for this is very much a man’s world. The few women that exist in it are mainly identified in relation to a man, as someone’s girlfriend, wife, mistress or even guardian angel. Legat’s wife Pamela (Jessica Brown Findlay) is more of a plot device than an independent character, creating a tension between his personal happiness and his duty to his country and the greater good.

The same goes for Paul’s former girlfriend Lenya (Liv Lisa Fries), whose brutal antisemitic mistreatment in a concentration camp apparently prompted his change of heart concerning National Socialism. And the real-life inspiration for Paul himself was far less amiable than Munich – The Edge of War would have us believe: the historical figure Adam von Trott zu Solz was part of the resistance group surrounding Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, and was executed after the failed coup on 20 July 1944. While this movement occupies a prominent place in German remembrance culture, it should be noted that many of its members were not democrats in a modern sense, but came from a nationalist or militarist background. 

It does… provide a pleasantly authentic take on the diverse linguistic landscape that such an international conference quite naturally entails

The film is an Anglo-German co-production, which does not keep it from having its fair share of clichés about direct, rude Germans and polite, but distant Brits. It does, however, provide a pleasantly authentic take on the diverse linguistic landscape that such an international conference quite naturally entails, and portrays it in a consistent way. The German characters are played by native speakers, who speak German with English subtitles when talking to each other, and the vital role of interpreters and translators in international diplomacy is also accentuated.

Munich – The Edge of War is a rich, multilayered film which ticks many, though not all, boxes and provides a refreshing take on familiar historical events. While clearly grounded in its historical context, it deals with questions that have lost none of their pertinence in today’s world.

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