Review: 'Munich – The Edge of War' (2021)
Amy Stanning | Lancaster University
The Munich conference of September 1938, which took place between Hitler, Chamberlain, Mussolini and Daladier, (leaders of Germany, Britain, Italy and France), was the climax of the Anglo-French policy of Appeasement towards Hitler. This was the policy of giving managed concessions to Hitler in the forlorn hope of satisfying his expansionist demands. Within six months, the policy had failed as Hitler, having assured Chamberlain in September 1938 that he had no further territorial ambitions, carved up Czechoslovakia with his Hungarian allies.
The Munich conference, Chamberlain's parading of his written agreement with Hitler, 'the piece of paper' signed by Hitler and Chamberlain and slogan' peace for our time' is widely regarded as a shameful, national humiliation for the British. Hitler's demands for the cessation of the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia to Germany were met, with Italian connivance, by Anglo-French capitulation. Taylor argues that the conference itself made the Second World War more likely as 'Hitler drew the lesson that threats were his most potent weapon'.
Against such a damaged reputation, 'Munich – The Edge of War' (dir. Christian Schwochow), an adaptation of the novel by Robert Harris, is a self-proclaimed attempt at revisionism. The film seeks to rehabilitate Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain as an astute schemer, seeking to trap Hitler with his own words and to stiffen Anglo-French policy by demonstrating Hitler's untrustworthiness.
Confidently played by Jeremy Irons, Chamberlain is portrayed as an idealist motivated above all else to avoid the destruction and suffering of another world war. Irons' Chamberlain is strong, assured and calculating. Exposing Hitler is key to his policy of stiffening British resistance. George MacKay plays an emotionally withdrawn Hugh Legat, Chamberlain's secretary, who becomes a secret agent for the conference linking up with Oxford classmate Paul von Hartmann, (Jannis Niewöhner), now a translator in the German Foreign Office and member of the German resistance. They have plotted a military coup and Hitler's murder should the conference fail and war begin. When this strategy fails, the plotters' second 'throw of the dice' is to discredit Hitler by leaking his aggressive territorial plans (apparently the Hossbach memorandum of November 1937), to Chamberlain, in order to stiffen British resistance. Whilst von Hartmann gets to meet Chamberlain and hands over the memorandum, Chamberlain appears unconvinced.
With the conference over, the plotting failed and the Sudetenland in Hitler's lap, the tension ratchets. Von Hartmann is drawn, pistol in hand, into a private audience with Hitler, who rants at his lack of popular support. Responding, von Hartmann fidgets with his hidden gun, wrestling with his opportunity to murder the Fuhrer. We urge him to do the deed, thinking what might have been, but the 'good' German is just too good to do it.
The inclusion of the Hossbach Memorandum and necessary subterfuge to bring it to Chamberlain's attention by a member of the German resistance aided by a British spy is pure fiction. The memorandum only became known years after the end of the war, and such unfettered access to the British Prime Minister is stretching credulity too far. Similarly, allowing an armed assassin one on one contact with Hitler is great drama but hardly credible. Although the plot stretches historical credibility beyond breaking point, the drama is intense, ratcheted up as the SS suspect von Hartmann, and the audience fears for the safety of this 'good' German, his fate resolved only towards the finale. Historical accuracy aside, the film is an absorbing watch as the protagonists' relationships build, the plotting unfolds, and the plotters' strategy changes.
The film is shot in washed-out colour, reflecting the pre-war gloom of the period and point of view shot, handheld cameras, intensify the drama of the key dialogue. External shots reinforce the greyness and foreboding which hangs over the film as bomb shelters are built in London and gas masks are issued. In Berlin, the unemployed beg for work while Jews are humiliated, and the SS and German soldiers seem to be in every shot. Curiously the SA also appear even though they largely disappeared after 1934!
Does the film succeed in its aim of rehabilitating Chamberlain? Setting aside the fictionalised accretions to add grip and drama to the plot, the impression created is of a principled, calculating Prime Minister who plays the best hand he had. To the extent that delaying the war gave the British more time to prepare for when it came, perhaps it does, just a little. Even if not, I enjoyed just over two hours of gripping drama. It is well worth watching.
Alan John Percival Taylor, The Origins of the Second World War, (London: Penguin, 1964).
Robert Harris, Munich, (Cornerstone: 2018)
Amy Stanning is a PhD Student in the History Department at Lancaster University. Amy's research interest is in the public finances of the British eighteenth century' Fiscal Military state'. Her research project considers the development of differential taxation contributions within the population as taxation policy evolved and consumer consumption developed in response to the commodities newly available within the expanding imperial economy.