Writer: Ben Power
Director: Christian Schwochow
When viewed in retrospect, many historical events seem inevitable but there was always someone fighting to stop them. Novelist Robert Harris has built a career on telling those stories by looking left of centre to the ordinary people around the famous faces trying to hold back the tide. And while we know Pompei will be consumed by ash, Julius Caesar is assassinated and the Financial Crisis still occurs, theirs is nothing inevitable about a Harris thriller. Now Netflix adapts his 2017 novel Munich which had its world premier at the London Film Festival.
Hugh Legat is working in Neville Chamberlain’s office when Hitler’s plan to annex the Sudetenland is discovered and the Prime Minister organises emergency peace talks in Munich. Discovering a strain of resistance in Hitler’s political staff, MI5 arrange for Hugh to join the British contingent in Germany and task him with receiving vital information from his old Oxford friend Paul Hartmann. Will their proximity to great men overawe them?
You’ll find Munich – Edge of War tucked away in the Thrill section of the Film Festival brochure with only two screenings. In any other year, this Netflix-backed production with an all-star cast may well have made a Headline Gala or Special Presentation – the Second World War is, after all, a favourite subject of both the British film industry and the Film Festival. It can, then, legitimately be attributed the moniker of ‘hidden gem.’
Christian Schwochow’s film adapted by Ben Power takes all the ingredients of Harris’ excellent novel and turns them into an engaging and exciting two-hour screen thriller which somehow makes the business of politicians talking a lot and making deals seem like edge-of-your-seat stuff. Of course, the world is at stake and with the help of secret documents, underground movements, last minute appeals in locked rooms and a baddie out to stop them, there’s more than enough in Munich – Edge of War to keep the audience guessing about the outcome for the characters if not for Europe.
At the centre is a very credible estranged friendship between Hugh and Paul who fell out years ago over politics but discover they still care deeply for their lost friendship. And while much of the film by necessity follows the men in their separate camps, they become quite the reluctant team and, happily, Schwochow gives equal weight to the German and British perspectives, making the film multi-dimensional with slightly different dangers on both sides.
Jannis Niewӧhner is hugely expressive as Paul, conveying the fear of his sudden proximity to Hitler but a passionate determination to prevent the signing of a treaty that he knows is worthless. There is a lingering guilt in Paul that drives his actions, regretting the fervency for the Chancellor in his younger self and although we never quite know when and why his politics changed so drastically, Niewӧhner has a charismatic and intense screen presence that suits Paul’s anguish.
Hugh is less free to act, and George MacKay makes him an Establishment figure in training, learning the rules and blending into the background. There is a nervousness and constraint in Hugh that he must overcome and MacKay charts that struggle within himself really well, worrying for his friend and showing the emotional consequences that their actions set in motion.
Jeremy Irons is an excellent, blustering Chamberlain who Power (and Harris) initially want the viewer to believe is the failed negotiator of history, but Irons gives him savvy and shrewdness as he weighs up the short and long term consequences of peace-making. There’s fine support from a plethora of recognisable faces from Alex Jennings, who must be in every period drama from this era, Nicholas Farrell and Robert Bathurst with overly short but notable performances from Jessica Brown Findlay and Anjli Mohindra.
Marshalling the competing forces of two rival countries and their armies, the fate of a continent teetering on the cusp of conflict, the political machinations, espionage and resistance activities as well as the personal stories of two friends right at the centre of a vital moment in the twentieth-century, while controlling a thriller that barely has time to lag is quite a skill. But in Munich – Edge of War, Schwochow makes it look easy.
Munich – Edge of War is screening at the London Film Festival.