Munich: The Edge of War is a straightforward, direct narrative of civil servants striving desperately – and mostly believably – to stave off Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement of Hitler, and thus minimize, if not prevent, the eventual Second World War. Nothing about the film feels like a counterfactual film yarn like Inglourious Basterds or an alternative history like Apple TV+’s For All Mankind. That the story manages to derive genuine tension from a will they or won’t they spy premise that is so etched in history is a remarkable tribute to director Christian Schwochow’s craft. Schwochow, a veteran of German cinema and two very excellent episodes of Netflix’s The Crown, is a savvy filmmaker who subtly shifts the tension not just to the potential avoidance of war, but to the relationship between the two fictional (and thus at risk) lead characters.
Once a pair of Oxford school chums Hugh Legat, British, and Paul von Hartmann, German, find themselves on opposite sides as animosity grows between their respective countries throughout the 1930s. Cannily, the film opens with the two enjoying a party with a lady friend before flashing forward to the eve of World War II. Flashbacks later fill in the details of a crumbling friendship over the growth of the Nazi party. By 1938, both men have become well established civil servants: Legat a personal secretary to Neville Chamberlain and von Hartmann a diplomat and translator.
Schwochow has chosen two stellar leads to carry the film. Legat is played by the splendid young British actor George MacKay. MacKay, best known for Sam Mendes’ 1917 and the Australian crime drama The True History of the Kelly Gang, is an exquisitely British actor. He excels at all the stereotypical British tropes; he appears serious, dour, and slow to emotion, but MacKay is smart enough to undercut that exterior when the role allows. That he feels so severe so naturally makes his bursts of emotion all the more impactful. When MacKay, or here Legat, feels panic, it’s nearly impossible for the audience not to feel the rush as well – if he’s shaken up then certainty we should be.
Legat’s German counterpart, von Hartmann, is played by the splendid Jannis Niewöhner (Je suis Karl, Godless Youth). I’ll admit I’m unfamiliar with Niewöhner’s work aside from a bit part in the Netflix film Mute. He’s given the far more difficult part than MacKay to play here – a genuine true believer in the greatness of Germany who sold his soul to Nazism to try to rehabilitate his country from its post-Great War malaise. He now seeks redemption upon seeing the true face of the Nazi party. He desperately wants a strong Germany, but not at the moral cost Hitler requires. It’s a compelling nuanced role breathed life by a strong, subtle performer.
As war becomes increasingly inevitable, and Hitler is beginning the German mobilization to wage war in Czechoslovakia, circumstances bring the two back together. Von Hartmann acquires evidence of Hitler’s true military plans and will only deliver them to a trusted acquaintance on the British side, his old mate Legat. The “best of enemies” format is a popular spy story archetype from Bridge of Spies to classic John Le Carre novels. Decent, intellectual men on both sides committed to working across borders to try to avert war or other catastrophe often makes for effective storytelling, and that’s certainly the case here. The film’s structure keeps Legat and von Hartmann apart for a significant chunk of the film’s running time and, thus, when they finally reunite the scene has a crackle of real tension. The two actors share the easy chemistry of long time friends and the film absolutely hums when they both occupy the screen. Both performers are age appropriate but have youthful, boyish faces. There’s something slyly heartbreaking about seeing their optimistic physiognomies contrasted with the more grizzled visages of the elder performers.
Yet another wise choice by Schwochow is to allow his performers to act in the language each scene would require: there is no German accented English to be found here. It gives the film a subtle burst of realism that I can only imagine helps the film’s German actors to deliver so effectively. It’s also gorgeously lensed with an astute eye for period detail. Throughout, the story benefits from tiny moments in the performances. When von Hartmann salutes Hitler, his hand always lets loose a spontaneous tremor as though his body is physically recoiling at the act. The film never resorts to cheap overt tactics in establishing the through lines of history, but effectively makes a point nonetheless – there is a concerning cultural similarity between 1930s Germany and the United States and United Kingdom of the past half decade.
The biggest name in the cast here is Oscar winner Jeremy Irons (HBO’s Watchmen, The French Lieutenant’s Wife, House of Gucci). Irons plays Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain less as a man beaten down by Hitler’s bluster and more as a man so traumatized by the collective British experience in the first World War than he would happily sell his legacy for the chance to even briefly avert pending war. Irons is at his best when he’s a bit more restrained, and here he gives a masterclass in well considered introspection. It’s a compelling reevaluation, even if it’s one somewhat undercut by the historical record. Ulrich Matthes, probably best known for playing Joseph Goebbels in Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall, plays Hitler here. His Hitler is a bit more impish than most, he carries an easy sense of humor with his advisors and speaks with supreme confidence. He seems to delight in tweaking the emotions of the people around him. The scenes between Irons and Matthes are extremely effective, and carry an unexpected tension. Jessica Brown Findlay (BBC’s Downton Abbey, Peacock’s Brave New World), August Diehl (Inglourious Basterds, A Hidden Life) and Alex Jennings (The Queen, Netflix’s The Crown) help round out an excellent ensemble.
There are some nits to be picked at here – the ending is a bit on the “too neat” side of the ledger, Findlay comes off as less of a fully realized character and more of a plot device, some of the film’s tensest moments feel a bit too manufactured – but I’m not sure any of that really matters. I cannot escape the reality in which I watched this film. Considering all that’s happened in the United States over the last two years, I’m inexorably drawn to this story of heroic civil servants risking life and limb in order to pursue something just. This film is far better and immensely more compelling than the muted release it has seen. I’m hopeful it can find the audience it richly deserves when it is released on Netflix in late January.
Munich: The Edge of War opens in select theaters today and will release on Netflix on January 21, 2022.