Photo courtesy of Netflix

World War II has been covered extensively in film, from “Saving Private Ryan” and “Schindler’s List” to “Pearl Harbor” and “Casablanca.” It seems no stone of the war has been left unturned by cinema, no significant event gone unexplored.

In that regard, Netflix’s new wartime thriller, “Munich: The Edge of War,” based on the 2017 novel “Munich,” starts on a promising note. The film tackles a major turning point in the build up to World War II that hasn’t been traversed much in what feels like hundreds of movies already – the days leading up to the Munich Agreement. 

If you need a bit of a history refresher, here you go: The Munich Agreement was a settlement reached between Germany, Great Britain, Italy, and France in 1938, permitting Germany to take hold of a Czechoslovakian territory called the Sudetenland.

Before the agreement, German dictator Adolf Hitler was on the brink of taking the territory by force, something British and French leaders desperately wanted to avoid. In an act of appeasement – his most lasting legacy – British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Jeremy Irons in the film) supported the agreement and the transfer of territory. Before Chamberlain left Munich, he and Hitler signed a joint statement promising their two countries had no desire to go to war with each other, and Hitler vowed the land grab would be his last. 

We know how this story ends – appeasement fails, and Hitler invades Poland almost exactly a year later, igniting World War II. But throughout most of its run time, “Munich – The Edge of War” tries to shed light on the urgency and anxiety of Chamberlain’s choice. The film takes great pains not to portray him as the naive fool, as he’s cast in history books, but as a man who tried to do what he thought was right. But in its final moments, what begins as an attempt to shed light on the thought process behind one of history’s biggest failures suddenly turns into a misguided attempt at historical revision.  

With little more than five minutes to go in the film, Chamberlain staunchly defends this truce with Hitler to his advisors. If Hitler breaks his word? Well, at least the world will see him for who he truly is. “If I’m made to look a fool, well it’s a small price to pay,” Chamberlain says, a sentiment the film appears to agree with when minutes later, text appears on screen claiming that the Munich Agreement bought the Allied forces extra time to prepare for war, and ultimately was a deciding factor in their victory. 

Chamberlain was right; history does generally regard him a fool today. Maybe that’s a small price to pay for him, but it seems to me that the six million people who were brutally murdered by Nazis and the millions more who died fighting the war would beg to differ. I’m not a World War II expert by any means, and no one can claim to know what would have happened if Great Britain and France had gone to war with Germany over Czechoslovakia. But, while insight into Chamberlain’s commitment to appeasement might be worth a second look, it does not merit a total revision of the outcome of the policy – particularly when the film doesn’t show its revisionist hand until its final moments, changing the meaning of key earlier scenes. 

While Chamberlain looms large over the film, two fictional characters take up the majority of its action. English Hugh Legat (George MacKay) and German Paul von Hartmann (Jannis Niewöhner) are former Oxford classmates who fell out shortly after school ended due to Hartmann’s early support of Nazism. In 1938, they suddenly find themselves on opposing ends of the same side. Hartmann, working as a translator in Germany’s Federal Foreign Office, is now part of a small Nazi resistance, and comes across a classified document that details Hitler’s plans for total domination. As desperate as Chamberlain is to stave off war, Hartmann is more determined to stop Hitler no matter the cost, and enlists Legat’s help in getting this document in front of Chamberlain before he signs the agreement.  

A key interaction between Hartmann and Chamberlain illustrates how the film’s ending turns earlier scenes on their heads. With Legat’s help, Hartmann meets Chamberlain in secret and shows him the document, which outlines Hitler’s plan for Europe. As Hartmann, Niewönher is the stand out in the scene, and also through much of the film itself. His role is a tough line to walk, with Hartmann framed as a sort of hero of resistance, but also a recently reformed Hitler supporter. But Niewönher is able to effectively channel his character’s pure nationalist rage from the beginning of the film into the rage of a man who isn’t just angry he has been lied to, but angry he believed those lies in the first place.

In his interactions with Chamberlain, Hartmann stays taut as a wire on the brink of snapping. The anger and tension in his features doesn’t just come from fear of Hitler, but fear of how Hartmann himself has contributed to his country’s woes. 

As Chamberlain, Irons is calm. He’s a bit taken aback by the situation at first, but ultimately delivers a kindly, yet firm speech to the angry young man detailing the “political reality” of the situation, and tut-tutting Hartmann in a way that a grandfather might. Irons embodies Chamberlain’s authoritative, yet genial qualities seen here throughout much of the film. He never comes off as willfully naive, but good hearted, and genuinely invested in never allowing Britain to see war again. It’s a strong piece of work from Irons – despite what we know about his role in the war, the audience likes Chamberlain. If anything, the knowledge of how this all ends creates a feeling of pity for the man – a feeling completely lost at the film’s end. 

The biggest issue with “Munich – The Edge of War” is it seems less interested in exploring a complex, ultimately bad decision, and more interested in clumsily lionizing the man who made it. As the credits roll, a film that once seemed to be asking us to take pity on a good man forced to make a tough decision, now seems to be asking us to believe he was right. Scenes that once read as tragic, or ironic, suddenly ring inspiring and sincere – yet utterly dishonest.

Sammie Purcell

Sammie Purcell is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers.