The streaming giant’s new film on the Munich Conference attempts to change our image of Neville Chamberlain and the fatal policy of Appeasement. It fails miserably.
The new year has started with one of the most bizarre and unnecessary revisionist fads imaginable: the rehabilitation of Neville Chamberlain, Appeaser extraordinaire and one of the most credulous Prime Ministers this country and the world ever had the misfortune to witness in power. Already in September of last year, the historian Walter Reid delivered a mind-bogglingly fawning biography of the man which describes Chamberlain as a ‘compassionate radical’, a competent Lord Mayor of Birmingham and – mind you – a not half-bad Health Minister who laid the foundations for the British welfare state. It is unfortunate that such a talented actor as Jeremy Irons, who portrays Chamberlain in the new Netflix film Munich-The Edge of War has decided to join in this strange chorus, by declaring the fatally gullible PM a ‘very good Chancellor of the Exchequer’ and a man who was ‘on the right track.’
The plot of Munich, which is based on Robert Harris’ novel of the same name published in 2017, is as far-fetched and kitschy as it is apologetic of the Franco-British betrayal of Czechoslovakia at the Munich Conference in November 1938, through which Prague was forced to hand over its highly fortified border region, the Sudetenland which left it defenceless to the German annexation of its remaining territory that came only half a year later in March 1939. Yet, instead of focusing on the inherent tragedy that Munich meant for a sovereign, multi-ethnic democratic nation in the heart of Europe, the movie chooses to approach its weighty subject matter through the lens of the personal: In 1932, Paul von Hartmann (Jannis Niewöhner) and Hugh Legat (George MacKay) are Oxford-buddies who enjoy riling each other up and fooling around at their College’s Commemoration Ball, where they share the company of Lena (Liv Lisa Fries, Babylon Berlin), a German-Jewish woman whose tragic fate is revealed at a later point in the movie. Unfortunately, we never learn more about the background to this Anglo-German College friendship beyond irritable shouting matches between an increasingly fanatic Hartmann and a visibly perturbed Legat that leave the viewer with the distinct impression that this is a relationship that neither of the two men could possibly enjoy for very long. In fact, the two friends eventually split ways over Hartmann’s disturbing infatuation with German nationalism which leads him to a career in the Nazi Foreign Ministry, while Legat becomes private secretary to Chamberlain. However, Hartmann soon becomes disillusioned with the Nazi regime and joins a, historically documented, resistance cell in Berlin that aims to arrest and execute Hitler on the eve of a planned German invasion of Czechoslovakia in the fall of 1938. Yet, for the conspirators’ coup to succeed, they need the Munich Conference to fail, sacrificing, as Hartmann remarks at one point the lives of tens of thousands for those of millions. Hartmann’s subsequent attempt to deliver top secret information about Hitler’s expansionist plans to Chamberlain. structures the rest of the movie and provides it with a veneer of pseudo-documentary direction. Yet, while Munich-The Edge of War, remains earnestly committed to its contrarian interpretation of history, it cannot help but repeatedly undermine its cinematic intention through horrible screenwriting and almost comically bad directing which are not saved by the bountiful talents of the movie’s international cast.
Jeremy Irons plays Chamberlain, who was reportedly a cool and detached character, as an affable country gentleman, who is not, as we might assume, fooled by Hitler (Ulrich Matthes, Downfall), but rather aims to buy his nation the time it requires to prepare itself for the inevitable confrontation with Germany. This view of the Munich Conference and the whole policy of Appeasement has been the subject of academic debates, in which most scholars agree on Chamberlain’s short-sightedness, naivety and at least partial sympathy that parts of the British establishment felt for Nazi Germany. Yet, Munich-The Edge of War sticks to its revisionist premise of saving Chamberlain’s highly questionable legacy by showing him as a fundamentally lucid and idealistically minded, tragically misunderstood politician. Thus, we see the PM cooking up the stupendously naïve idea of asking the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini to be an intermediary at the Munich Conference; a move that is presented as a stroke of political genius inspired by a Hitler-speech Chamberlain remembers reading in The Times. At a later point, the PM uses the same reference to a duplicitous utterance made by the ‘Führer’ in some rant to produce a meaningless declaration of intent of an Anglo-German commitment to maintaining peace in Europe which Hitler has no qualms signing (the infamous Peace In Our Time-communiqué), yet which in Munich is transformed into a far-sighted diplomatic masterpiece with the power to rally a united front against Nazi Germany.
Munich-The Edge of War could have retained a small degree of however dramatized historicity if its creators had at least tried to remain plausible in the treatment of the plot they invent. Yet, in this too, the movie all too often fails in ways that are involuntarily Monthy-Pythonesque.
Thus, in one of the unlikeliest scenes of the movie, Hartmann and Legat are sitting in a Munich beer house, surrounded by uniformed Nazis in hearing distance, when von Hartmann tells an incredulous Legat – in German! – that they must stop Hitler. In any movie that took itself and the historically highly sensitive subject matter which it aspires to portray even half-seriously, this exchange would have ended with the clicking of pistols, wild shouting and the inevitable execution of at least Hartmann. Yet nothing of the sort happens, and Hartmann can calmly pass Legat top-secret information on Hitler’s true intentions in a newspaper copy that is kindly provided by a duped SS-man, who is sitting right next to the pair. While such a ham-fisted dramaturgic device is apt to destroy the final vestiges of goodwill a benevolent viewer might have towards the actors, it does the movie a last, fatal disservice by banalizing and distorting the vicious, all-pervading nature of the totalitarian surveillance state that the Nazis had created.
While previous British productions, such as Darkest Hour have sought to provide a realistic depiction of Chamberlain as a man committed to the doomed cause of Appeasement, Munich-The Edge of War fails in its aim to reshape the image of the Prime Minister as a wise and farsighted leader and is therefore unlikely to change popular perceptions of the folly of his policies. Instead, we may only hope that a more historically accurate dramatization of the tragedy of Munich will soon be produced that will finally do the fatal events of the fall of 1938 cinematic justice.