“He doesn’t change his mind,” Neville Chamberlain (Jeremy Irons) laconically reports between stilted puffs on his morning cigar, reading confirmation of Adolf Hitler’s plan to invade Czechoslovakia. It’s a hilarious moment in a movie whose subject matter and tone couldn’t be more serious; Europe is on the brink of a second world war, and the Prime Minister remains totally perplexed. It also fits a dry English sense of humor like the toast Chamberlain gives when he visits with “Herr Hitler” at the fateful Munich Conference of 1938, a cutesy diplomatic encounter between European powers that ostensibly bought a supplement to the British empire. year to prepare for combat.
But has giving priority to discussion rather than action, to propriety rather than taking a position, really paid off? Munich: the brink of war hints at the possibility, while also blaming Britain’s early geopolitical softness. Based on the novel by Robert Harris and German director Christian Schwochow’s primarily English-language feature debut, the film is a gripping and often moving political thriller that eschews the pro-Allied nostalgia sadly present in typical Hollywood takes on the Second World War. The fact that Americans had little to do with the making of the film — and don’t appear in it — may be why it offers a more nuanced portrait of an era so often reduced to good versus evil.
Toggle between the early and late 1930s, between the posh centers of London and Oxford and the more gritty, politically rocky rhinestones from Munich and Berlin, the film chronicles the friendship of Hugh Leget (George MacKay) and Paul von Hartmann (Jannis Niewöhner), two young men who meet in Oxford to reconnect as representatives of their rival governments six years later. late. Even more than in the Bourne series and more recent installments of the Bond franchise, European stars outperform world-famous stars, especially in the case of Niewöhner, Liv Lisa Fries and Sandra Hüller, the latter two actresses playing Lena and Helen Winter. , Paul’s college and adult love interests, respectively. Hugh is warmly married, with a young son, while Paul has joined the German resistance plotting to stop Hitler by any means possible. Their paths cross when Helen grants Paul access to an official document detailing Hitler’s plans for unbridled conquest, confirming his mad status to anyone wary of mass carnage. “You have to find a way to meet Chamberlain,” she implores Paul. “You must stop this deal from happening.”
While on some level Irons’ stifling Chamberlain comes across as an unlikely champion of peace, the film’s real heroes are clearly Hugh and Paul, who risk their reputations, if not their lives, to warn the British about the aims of Hitler. “You have no idea who he is,” pleads his temperamental friend Paul when meeting in Munich. “If you did, none of you would be here.” Although their friendship never openly turns into anything more, Hugh and Paul (and MacKay and Niewöhner) share an unmistakable chemistry that could spark a thousand off-screen fantasies. Whether it’s splitting a cigarette or plotting a spy for pints of lager, their eye contact never falters and the teasing often turns flirtatious. “You’re going gray,” Hugh remarks over a bierhaus table. “And you still don’t need to shave,” observes Paul.
While certainly peripheral characters to the central narrative, the women in the film play an active role in its development, proving to be complex figures in their own right, both patriotic and morally ambivalent about the prospect of war. “People are leaving the country,” warns Lena, a naive Paul, in a flashback set in 1932. “Families are boarding ships for America.” The cancerous spread of anti-Semitism in early 1930s Germany is also handled with refreshing skill. Despite his anti-Hitler sentiments, Paul picks up the pace when he comes across a trio of Jewish Berliners forced to scrub the terrace of the local cinema; he may be ruffled but he doesn’t look back, let alone intervene.
If interpreted as an apology for Chamberlain’s lack of aggressiveness against a megalomaniac leader, Munich: the brink of war could reasonably appear to some as disconnected if not dangerously revisionist. But as an exploration of the mistaken assumptions – and egregious failures – of Hitler’s British and German enemies, it resonates like a fictional, but often plausible, account of what could would have happened if the story had been different. “The great characteristic of the English is distance. Not just each other, but feelings,” Paul jokes in the opening scene of a party in Oxford. “We are just feelings. A new era begins in the new Germany. You can expect that. When ardor meets mistrust, or worse, evil meets eager attempts at appeasement, what can go tragically wrong? The question is worth asking not just when considering Adolf Hitler, but the rise of any rogue ruler on whom acts of diplomacy make no impression.
“We don’t choose the times we live in,” Paul tells Hugh in what we can only assume will be their final exchange. “The only choice we have is how we respond.” At this time — where the perils of a pandemic and increasingly intense political polarization can leave even the most willful citizen feeling drained of agency — it’s a worthy reminder. taken into account.