The events of September 1938 at the Munich conference haunt our political culture. ‘Munich’ has become a buzzword synonymous with the appeasement of tyrants – and so has Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister at the time. Widely condemned by posterity for surrendering the Sudetenland (German-speaking parts of Czechoslovakia) to Adolf Hitler at the Munich conference without extracting any meaningful concessions in return, Chamberlain is commonly viewed as one of the worst British Prime Ministers.
In Munich: The Edge of War, however, a different Chamberlain is presented: this Chamberlain (played by Jeremy Irons) is under few illusions about Hitler’s trustworthiness. For him, the Munich agreement is a play for time – an attempt to make the inevitable war more easily won.
The film is based on Robert Harris’s novel Munich and follows two erstwhile colleagues at Oxford, one German (Paul von Hartman), one English (Hugh Legat), who find themselves at the conference working for their respective countries in 1938. The film is at its most engaging where it explores Paul’s political development, giving us insight into how Hitler was seen by Germans. At times, one finds oneself wishing he was the main character of the story.
Instead, our protagonist is Hugh (played by the stony-faced George MacKay), who is private secretary to the Prime Minister and is as bland a character as his job title. His defining trait is “distance” – a fact that is brought up by his wife in the film and keenly felt by the audience. Clumsy attempts to show personal development through scenes showing tensions in his marital life are ultimately too generic to be engaging and feel out of place.
As the events of September 1938 and their outcome are so well known, the film arguably lacks significant stakes. However, herein also lies the most intriguing question the film raises. It invites us into Chamberlain’s position at the conference: a war-weary public at home, the threat of imminent war over a relatively small issue (though not to the Czechs – who were not invited to the conference, as Hugh occasionally reminds us) in Europe. What could he have done differently? In hindsight, we can see that the settlement brought about by the conference would not create lasting peace – indeed it seems obvious that it will not. But the alternative to a settlement, war (triggered by a treaty with Czechoslovakia) was unthinkable. Chamberlain’s actions are thus rendered understandable, if not laudable.
Or at least they would be if the film did not insist on implying that Chamberlain knew Hitler could not be trusted and was only playing for time. This both undermines the complex questions the film raises about Chamberlain and is at odds with the historical record. It renders Chamberlain’s claim to have secured “Peace for our Time” mere political subterfuge rather than the ironic optimism it was. As entertaining as the film is, with tense sequences, excellent production design and a charismatic performance by Jeremy Irons, its rehabilitation of Chamberlain is hard to overlook.
‘Munich’ haunts us – as well it should. But not because it was a clever ploy done in full knowledge of what was to come. Rather, it haunts us because in his desperation to secure peace diplomatically, Chamberlain gave Hitler what he wanted – and war still came.
Image courtesy of Lee Wright via Wikimedia Commons