Saturday, July 13, 2024

‘Munich – The Edge of War’ Fails to Bring History Alive

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Munich-The Edge of War proposes two historical hypothesizes but fails to wrestle with any of them. It’s historical fiction but in the fullest sense of the phrase. An attempt to readjust the lens in which we view Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, the man who was infamous for his “peace treaty” with Adolph Hitler, could have been at the very least provocative.

Instead, Christian Schwochow tries to do so with a couple of scenes wherein he bludgeons the audience over the head with the sentiment but then quickly drops the matter. Nevermind that he and screenwriter Ben Power, who adapted the book by Robert Harris, weakly tackle that age-old question “Would you shoot Hitler in the head at point-blank range? By the end, we’re left with one silly scene and wondering why anyone thought this story needed to be told.

The thrust of Munich uses two characters, the British Hugh Legat (George MacKay) and German Paul von Hartmann (Jannis Niewohner), two school chums who drift apart because of politics. Hugh is an upper-class ner-do-well who doesn’t seem that interested in politics initially only to become a member of Chamberlain’s staff. Von Hartmann’s story, however, is far more interesting in that he starts as a nationalist excited about the rise of this new politician Herr Hitler but eventually grows disillusioned and realizes the danger he poses both to Germany and the world.

edge of war
Paul (Jannis Niewohner) and Hugh (George MacKay)

In the midst of it all, you have Jeremy Irons as the historically disgraced Chamberlain. Irons is not at his best here, but even a sleepwalking Irons is fascinating to watch. He brings a quiet dignity to a man so dedicated to pacifism and committed to peace that he’s willing to do so even at the expense of his reputation.

Munich spends much of its runtime cutting back and forth between Hugh and Paul as they toil away in their respected government positions. With his troubled marriage and growing ennui, Hugh seems dull compared to Paul’s attempt to ferment a revolution and take down the Reich. Soon, Paul will reach out to Hugh in desperation as Chamberlain and others have announced to meet with Hitler about the Sudetenland.

Schwochow, at times, can make Munich a gripping tale of intrigue and diplomatic tension. But those scenes almost always involve Niewohner’s Paul. Moments such as when he first confronts Hitler (Ulrich Matthes) on the train. Schwochow and his cameraman, Frank Lamm, use the shadows of trees blocking out the sunlight through the train’s window to make the tiny man seem menacing.

Moments such as these make the fact that Munich is so forgettable disappointing. Matthes, as Hitler, underplays him, choosing to let the menace come through in what he doesn’t say. Far from frothing at the mouth, Matthes’s Hitler is terrifying because he understands he is underestimated and plays into it.

Much of Munich is drab in the way many Netflix movies are. The colors are washed out, and the camera seems uninterested in doing anything but recording the events in front of it. If Power’s script had been even the slightest more daring or provocative, then maybe it would not have mattered. Sadly, the film is saddled with such moments as when we learn that Paul realized Hitler was evil because the nazis beat and raped Paul and Hugh’s mutual friend Lena (Liv Lisa Fries). Not, as we have seen prior, his and his party’s treatment of Jewish people.

edge of war
Neville Chamberlain (Jeremy Irons) gives a speech to the British people

The story haunts Hugh. It causes him to beg Chamberlain to meet with Paul, who has stolen a secret document outlining Hitler’s plan to conquer the continent. All of this is anticlimatic because Munich isn’t interested in playing with anything, much less the truth.

I mentioned earlier Munich attempts to recast Chamberlain from historical pariah for his policy of Appeasement. But it does so in such a clumsy way. After getting Hitler to sign a pact swearing he would never attack the UK, Chamberlain left Germany proud that he had averted war over the Sudetenland and secured peace. His advisors are happy about the outcome of the Sudetenland talks but beg him not to tout the peace treaty with Hitler.

They correctly feel Hitler is not going to honor it. To which Chamberlain replies, “If there’s one thing I’ve learned with my dealings with mister Hitler is that you can’t play poker with a gangster without any cards up your sleeves.” 

“What if he breaks his word. You’ll look like a fool,” his advisor replies.

“Well, if he breaks his word, then the world will see him for who he truly is!” Later he sighs and explains, “I can only play the cards I am dealt.” This line of argument could have been interesting, exploring how both widespread consensus and his principles left Chamberlain feeling as if his hands were tied. The age-old problem of people in power not realizing that they are the ones in power. That is until it’s paired with the even sloppier and more hamfisted idea put forth by the film that Chamberlain had cleverly bought time for the allies to gear up and prepare for Hitler’s eventual invasion.

edge of war
Hitler (Ulrich Matthes)

It’s an attempt to make Neville seem like a master strategist who saw the looming clouds of war and said rather than do anything right now, it would be better to stall, gather forces, and use Hitler’s lack of “honor” to bring the American’s onboard. But, of course, this argument would also require the Americans to have come on board instead of sitting on the sidelines for much of the war. Though, in Chamberlain’s defense, he’s hardly the first person to put too much faith in America doing the right thing.

One ludicrous scene involves Paul meeting with Hitler and silently debating whether or not he should kill the madman before deciding not to. Afterward, when asked why he says, “I didn’t have the right.” This is a moment that goes against everything Paul has been espousing for most of the movie. Ironically, the tension in that scene could have been riveting had the film made any effort to signal that it would be a daring sort of historical fiction instead of a Neville Chamberlain apologia.

I found myself thinking of The Man Who Shot Hitler and Then the Bigfoot, a superior piece of historical fiction both in style, tone, and execution. But Munich is so wedded to the facts and only tying with the minutiae that calling it historical fiction seems disingenuous as opposed to what its genuine interest is historical revisionism.

Images courtesy of Netflix

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