In the first scene of Christian Schwochow’s Munich—The Edge of War, Paul von Hartmann (Jannis Niewöhner) joyously proclaims to his college buddies that a dazzling new Germany awaits on the horizon, as fireworks sparkle in the background and champagne froths like confetti. The year is 1932, and, of course, there isn’t a soul in the audience who is not aware that this new Germany couldn’t be further from the kind of country that Paul yearns for.
Framing Nazi Germany with this level of irony isn’t exactly a groundbreaking move, but this tonal tension does inadvertently highlight the things that Munich gets right—and wrong. The film, based on Robert Harris’s 2017 novel of the same name, follows 1917’s Hugh Legat (George MacKay, who thankfully doesn’t have to spend the entire two hours running), one of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s (Jeremy Irons) private secretaries, who, on the eve of World War II, is fighting alongside college friend Paul to stop Germany from taking over part of Czechoslovakia and launching all of Europe into war.
There’s something inherently satisfying about watching a film when you know exactly how it’s going to end. That’s one of the main reasons our societal love for biopics and historical dramas hasn’t waned. These films affirm what we believe to be true about our own histories, and they also bolster moments of purposefully misleading tension. Schwochow is aware that his audience knows that Chamberlain won’t really end up preventing World War II, and proportionately buttresses the film’s emotional core. Our familiarity with this story’s ending makes it that much more agonizing when Paul romanticizes the future of his country, just as it precludes any sigh of relief we might be afforded when the characters mistakenly think they have stopped the war.
But while watching our characters mistakenly revel on the precipice of war serves Munich’s dramatic effect, it doesn’t do a whole lot for its tension. It’s not a stretch to expect that a film about the infamous Munich Conference to be a ripe bundle of nerves and apprehension. But the film ends up being as suspenseful as a 1990s rom-com.
This is due, in part, to Schwochow’s not-totally-misguided decision to favor character psychoanalysis over dramatic beats. Perhaps this is precisely because he is aware that this particular event is so well-known, and because the event itself has such a dissatisfying ending. This might have indeed been the best way to tell this story, were the characters more fleshed-out and interesting. Our leading, justice-seeking, patriotic man, Hugh, spends all of Munich fighting tooth-and-nail to be the hero that his country needs—even if that means harshly putting his beautiful wife Pamela (Jessica Brown Findlay) on an indefinite backburner. But MacKay, who is usually a magnetic and dynamic actor, plays Hugh so straight—with his tight expression hardly cracking and a majority of his lines read like he’s at a press conference—that it’s hard to care terribly much about him. This, in turn, weighs significantly on the film’s promising emotional core.
Surprisingly, Munich is saved by Paul, who Niewöhner plays as impassioned, heavily reactive to his surroundings and almost as volatile as the situation he is dealing with. Unsurprisingly, Jeremy Irons brings a monsoon of charisma to the infamous Chamberlain, but ends up illustrating the chief issues with Schwochow transforming the Munich Conference into a character study: At one point, Chamberlain explains that, despite the fact that his followers disagree with his actions, he is in fact playing four-dimensional chess with Adolf Hitler in an attempt to buy his allies more time. This is quite the narrative leap, and imbues Munich with a strange edge of revisionist history—the purpose of which is never really explained.
This choice is particularly confounding because Munich is no Inglourious Basterds. For better or worse, the film does a good job of fitting into the genre’s confines, with hammy lines such as “Has anyone spoken to the Czechs?” and “I’ve got Downing Street on the line;” a sinister portrayal of Hitler; impressive period detail; and a frosty color palette. Not once does Schwochow wink at the audience and suggest that he is going to subvert expectations. Perhaps if he had done so, Munich would have been a more successful film—or perhaps it would have suited him better to totally lean into the genre and give the infamous event the suspense it really calls for.
Director: Christian Schwochow
Writers: Ben Power
Stars: Jeremy Irons, George MacKay, Jannis Niewohner, Sandra Huller, Liv Lisa Fries, August Diehl, Jessica Brown Findlay, Anjli Mohindra, Ulrich Matthes
Release Date: January 21, 2021 (Netflix)
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.