Tuesday, 28 June 2022

‘Munich’ what-if spy thriller with the world on edge


The historical significance of the Munich Pact, an agreement that briefly averted the outbreak of World War II by acquiescing to the German conquest of Czechoslovakia, results in Sept. 30, 1938 as a day of infamy.

Based on the international best-seller “Munich” by British thriller author Robert Harris, the Netflix original movie “Munich: The Edge of War,” while focused on two young, idealistic diplomats attempting to change history, paints a more nuanced portrait of Neville Chamberlain.

History has mostly judged the British Prime Minister Chamberlain harshly for appeasement of Hitler’s designs on the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia, an area heavily populated with Germans that the Fuhrer wanted to absorb into the Reich.

Here, the drama of international diplomacy offers a revisionist perspective on Chamberlain (Jeremy Irons) as desperately trying to avoid another ruinous world war that the Allies were either unwilling or ill-prepared to engage.

Most telling, perhaps, is how Chamberlain is received as a hero on his return to Britain as the memories of the slaughter of the Great War were not-so-distant to his countrymen. The British public’s desire to avoid war was almost universal.

Was the British Prime Minister truly naïve about Hitler’s intentions? He lectures an aide about “political reality,” but to what end? Did Chamberlain negotiate a tenuous peace with Hitler to buy more time before the inevitable?

Putting aside all notions of a nonfiction recap of the peace conference involving Britain and France joining with Hitler and his fascist counterpart in Italy, “Munich: The Edge of War” is foremost a drama of two fictional diplomats on opposite sides in a geopolitical tragedy.

The story begins in 1932 at Oxford University where Hugh Legat (George MacKay) and his German friend and fellow student Paul von Hartman (Jannis Niewohner) have a falling-out at graduation time over the latter’s infatuation with the “new Germany.”

Fast forward six years, and Hugh works in the British foreign office and as an aide to the prime minister, while Paul is a press secretary to the Fuhrer (Ulrich Matthes) and romantically involved with Helen Winter (Sandra Huller), the ex-wife of a German general.

The significance of Paul’s relationship with an older paramour is that they both belong to a secret anti-Hitler resistance group that realizes the leader of the Third Reich is a dangerous madman who must be stopped.

No longer enamored with Hitler’s vision of restoring Germany’s glory, Paul is eager to provide purloined documentation of the Fuhrer’s plan to conquer all of Europe to acquire “living space” to his British counterpart.

As Hugh is part of the British delegation that arrives in Munich for the peace conference, Paul reconnects with his former university chum to enlist his help to attempt to dissuade Chamberlain from agreeing to Hitler’s designs on the Sudetenland.

With Paul on shaky ground under the suspicious, prying eyes of Nazi officer Franz Sauer (August Diehl), the head of Hitler’s security detail, it’s obvious the German diplomat has more at stake and a lot to lose with his clandestine activities.

While Paul comes off as more reckless than his British colleague, raising his voice in places where German officials could easily overhear his rants, Hugh is more tight-lipped with typical British reserve.

Separately, Hugh and Paul deal with their respective leaders with a measure of guarded caution. Chamberlain cares little to consider dissenting views. Hitler is sufficiently mercurial and unstable that Paul or anyone for that matter is nervous in his presence.

While “Munich: The Edge of War” fascinates with the “what-if” scenario of a plot to thwart Hitler’s crazed ambitions, the bigger picture is to know that even to this day historians may quibble and debate about the motivations of political leaders of the time.

The French Prime Minister Edouard Daladier (Stephane Boucher) was part of the Munich conference but his thought process is not revealed and that’s partly due to how his presence is like an afterthought. Was he in fact concerned and aware of the folly of capitulation to Hitler?

On the matter of appeasement, Neville Chamberlain is unlikely to ever escape being the poster boy of appeasement for his diplomatic concession of territory to an aggressive power in order to avoid conflict.

After the Munich conference, Chamberlain announced with misguided confidence that he had secured “peace in our time.” We know only too well how that turned out as hardly a year had passed after the Munich agreement before Germany invaded Poland.

The trajectory of World War II is sure to remain debated for years to come. As for the Munich Pact, was it possible that Germany was so strong that Britain needed to buy more time to prepare for its defense against the Luftwaffe’s intense bombing campaign two years later?

There is much for history buffs to consider about actual events, but as for entertainment value “Munich: The Edge of War” creates plenty of riveting, tense and poignant moments for the two imagined diplomats navigating the treacherous domain of political intrigue.

Tim Riley writes film and television reviews for Lake County News.

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