“You know I’d gladly stand against the wall and be shot if it prevented a war.” So speaks Jeremy Irons’ Neville Chamberlain in an early but insightful scene during Netflix’s new pre-World War II thriller, Munich: The Edge of War. In the sequence, Irons’ British Prime Minister is doddering around a garden with his wife and new aide-de-camp, Hugh Legat (George MacKay). The doomed world leader appears both hopeful and hopelessly ineffectual. And that’s the image of Chamberlain which has gone down in history: the face of weak appeasement.
Yet the most compelling aspect about this Munich film is in its best moments, not only does it make you see things from Chamberlain’s misguided perspective, but it makes you see yourself and our current tumultuous moment in history within him. Here is a man desperate to avoid the worst case scenario, and a leader who’s committed to a fault to the traditions and decorum of international relations being exercised to prevent a disaster that would surely be more catastrophic than even The Great War. And yet, the tension that arises in Munich is not only knowing the bitter end of failure that awaits Chamberlain’s efforts, but also seeing our own moment of anxiety—and the faith some leaders put in the institutions to calm the storm—echoed in Chamberlain’s faith that the worst can be avoided when dealing with a capricious madman like Adolf Hitler.
In that sense, Munich: The Edge of War works as a great geopolitical tragedy, even if its ostensible main appeal as a spy thriller turns out to be a lot more wanting.
A blend of fact and fiction, this Munich—which is not to be confused with Steven Spielberg’s chilling 2005 espionage thriller of the same name—centers around the doomed Munich Conference in September 1938, which was instigated by Chamberlain in an effort to stave off war with Nazi Germany. At the time, Hitler (Ulrich Matthes) and the German military were amassing armed forces on the border of Czechoslovakia, with conquest of the Sudetenland seemingly inevitable. With Great Britain and France pledged to defend the Czech border, Chamberlain reached out to Hitler through Italy in the hopes of brokering an agreement that would carve up Czechoslovakia to Germany’s liking and, supposedly, satisfy the Führer’s desire for conquest.
We all know how that went.
Hence the fictional drama simultaneously occurring between two friends: the aforementioned Hugh Legat and his German buddy from Oxford days, Paul von Hartman (Jannis Niewöhner). The pair fell out after school due to Paul’s infatuation with the then-rising Nazi Party and promises of Germany’s glory. But six years later, Paul is disillusioned and part of a secret resistance within the German government working against Hitler. Also due to some rather convenient plotting, he’s come into possession of a document that proves Hitler’s intent to acquire more “living space” for Germans through a war of conquest across Europe. Thus Paul arranges to share that document with Hugh and Chamberlain at the Munich Conference in a last ditch hope to convince Chamberlain to aid a German military coup in Berlin.
Of course if either Hugh or Paul are caught conspiring in a German city filled with spies and prying Nazi eyes, both could be executed, one as a spy and the other as a traitor.
Munich: The Edge of War is directed by Christian Schwochow, who’s worked extensively in television, including on the series The Crown. This makes sense as many of the compositions and the overall mise en scène consists of shaky handheld close-ups with shallow depths of field. The handheld is intended to make quiet rendezvouses at biergartens and dark German streets appear more clandestine and dangerous, but they perhaps speak more to the typically lower funded efforts of many Netflix dramas greenlit by a streaming service eager for content.
This particularly hurts the way some pivotal plot points occur, such as when Paul and Hugh are filmed as having a shouting match in the lobby of a German hotel where the British delegation is staying—and which would’ve been crawling with Nazi eyes, who couldn’t have spotted such forced melodrama any easier than if the pair had been wearing matching neon onesies. In that sense, the most theatrical flourishes fall flat whenever the film is attempting to be a full-title thriller.
Nevertheless, there is a gnawing and inescapable tension caked throughout the film that becomes almost unbearable as the screws tighten and Chamberlain places Europe’s destiny firmly in the lion’s mouth. This is partially due to Irons’ expertly judged performance as the British PM. Still a captivating screen presence when he wants to be (or when he’s given solid enough material), Irons inhabits the weakness of Chamberlain, yes, but also cultivates a seeming awareness of his doomed folly. He knows his efforts will fail but he will pursue the charade in any event in the hopes of peace. Is that accurate to the man? I don’t really know, but it makes for good, despairing drama.
Additionally of value is the movie’s vantage of Chamberlain and these last ditch efforts to avoid war. Traditionally, the efforts of British appeasers have been dramatized with a sense of sneering schadenfreude or disdain from later generations. Think James Fox’s oblivious fool, Lord Darlington, in The Remains of the Day (1993). But Munich: The Edge of War was filmed in the fall of 2020, during the height of the COVID pandemic and at what felt like another inflection point for Western democracy with the decay of the American presidency in North America, and the lingering effects of Brexit and the rise of anti-immigrant bigotries in Europe.
While the worst was avoided (for a time) in the U.S., like the characters in this drama, it can still feel like we’re all on a teetering edge, if perhaps closer to flashbacks of Hugh and Paul’s Oxford days in 1932 than the last breath before the plunge in ’38. The norms and systems which have governed the modern world for decades appeared to be cracking when the movie was made, and when it arrives more than a year later, they still appear fairly weakened and fragile, with younger generations resembling the film’s fictional protagonists who stare into the abyss while being promised by the older generation of leaders that the fall will be avoided. That there will be peace in our time.
Munich is made at a moment in history when Chamberlain’s fears, and his follies, are entirely more tangible than they were a few decades ago. And when that realization hits you, the movie’s tension never lets go.
Munich: The Edge of War is streaming on Netflix now.