Political Film Review #647


Films about World War II are endless, and Munich: The Edge of War fills a gap about the Munich Agreement of 1938. However, the story is based on the 2017 novel by Robert Harris, who wrote the novel that became the film Enigma, which was nominated for a Political Film Society award for best film exposé of 2001, having brought to light the British who broke Nazi codes during World War II.

Directed by Christian Schwochow, the film focuses on two Oxford University graduate students, Hugh Legat (played by George MacKay) and Paul von Hartmann (Jannis Niewöhner), who are brought together by a third, Lenya (Liv Lisa Fries), with free booze at a party in 1932. In a later scene, the two disagree about German support for Hitler (Ulrich Matthes). Hartmann and another student from Germany scream their support and attack Legat’s apparent opposition. The vitriolic support for Hitler, whom they claim will bring dignity back to Germany, appears to be a copy of how Trumpists defend themselves.

Most of the film then jumps to 1938. Legat is now married and works for British foreign intelligence, though his wife Pamela (Jessica Brown Findlay) becomes concerned that he devotes so little time for family life. Hartmann works for German military intelligence, though he now has a girlfriend, Helen (Sandra Huller), who works alongside Hartmann.

The political situation is that Germany has threatened to mobilize troops to take Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia because that province has far more German than Czech speakers and therefore should revert to Germany based on the principle of self-determination, albeit without a plebiscite (with obvious parallels to Russian control of Russian-speaking Ukraine). Hartmann, however, now opposes Hitler and works closely with military officers seeking to stop the inevitable war that Germany will launch and ultimately lose. If Hitler actually mobilizes troops, they plan to arrest him.

However, Hitler’s threat is answered by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Jeremy Irons), who even contacts Italian dictator Benito Mussolini to pressure Hitler to back down. When the Mussolini card fails, Chamberlain proposes an agreement that would allow Germany to annex Sudetenland peacefully and stop any further expansion of Germany. Hitler accepts the proposal and schedules a meeting in Munich, where the two are to sign an agreement that will keep the peace.

Helen then shares a document with Hartmann that reveals a master plan: Hitler plans warfare to take over all Europe, so any agreement at Munich will be meaningless. Efforts are undertaken to bring Hartmann and Legat together as part of the British and German delegations so that Hartmann can pass the document to Legat.

The two travel to Munich, meet, and the document is passed. They try to share the document with Chamberlain before he is about to sign the agreement with Hitler, but Chamberlain is much more astute than they realize: Britain is not yet prepared for war, so the Munich Agreement establishes a red line. The agreement of September 30, 1938, buys time for Britain to make war preparations as well as a test of Hitler’s mendacity: If Germany crosses the red line, the pretext for war to bring down Nazi Germany will be so clear that the United States will send troops.

The film then shows how the Munich Agreement affects both Hartmann and Legat as well as Lenya and Pamela. Titles at the end indicate that Chamberlain lost support and later died (on November 9, 1940). However, they do not indicate what happened to Hartmann, Legat, and the important document that was the focus of so much attention. The reason is that the characters are fictional, though the Munich Agreement became a symbol of diplomacy that has been cited many times ever since.  MH

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