The year is 1938, and Nazi aggression has driven Europe to the brink of an all-out war. The only hope for peace? The Munich Conference, a make or break meeting between Europe’s key leaders. This is the backdrop to Netflix’s new war movie Munich – The Edge of War, a gripping drama about two former friends tasked with the impossible, preventing a global conflict.
Led by Jeremy Irons, who plays Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, the film focuses on two former friends Hugh Legat (George Mackay) and Paul von Hartmann (Jannis Niewöhner), who’ve fallen out over politics. However, the pair are forced to reconcile, becoming reluctant spies as they both try and expose the Nazi Party’s evil plans.
Ahead of the film’s release, we caught up with Niewöhner to talk about the film. We asked how he thinks people will respond to the movie’s timely themes, what it was like working with George MacKay and Jeremy Irons, and if he believes it’s important to avoid cliche when portraying Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler on the big screen.
The Digital Fix: When you first pitched the film and read the script. What about appeal to you?
Jannis Niewöhner: First of all, it was the opportunity to work with Christian Schwochow, who I worked with before and who in Germany really is one of the most exciting directors and I just knew that he would do something special – his way of approaching the work was probably the main reason.
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But then at the same time, you know, I could work with some of the most exciting international actors I could think of and like anyway, that the whole cast, like Sandra Hüller, August Diehl, Ulrich Matthes. There were so many great people I was able to work with. So it was that. And then last but not least, the story. Paul von Hartman was just such an interesting character who was so driven by achieving his goal. And well, there’s a lot going on beneath the surface.
I agree with that. Paul is an interesting character because he has this strong initial belief in what we know is the wrong cause. Eventually, of course, he turns his back on the Nazis, but I have to ask you how you feel about Paul? And to what extent do you think this is a hopeful film? In that, it says people can eventually make the right decision?
Yeah, I think the biggest message is that you should, you should always fight for what you believe. If there are times where you think, ‘Oh, it didn’t work out’, it’s still right to continue fighting for it and not give up. I could really understand what he was doing. I was trying to get a sense for the period of time he grew up, and how his childhood must have felt and what possibly happened to his family after the First World War.
After the Treaty of Versailles and all the things, so many things were taken from Germany, and they would feel so weak, and then there was this person [Hitler] telling them how we get that back and saying ‘these things were taken from you’.
I think those nationalistic themes are very, very timely. How do you think audiences will react to the themes?
I think they will definitely see the similarities to what we’re living in now. I think the best reaction would be from the one who says,’ You know what I should, even though I may be just one single person or we may be just a few persons, you should always try to fight for the right thing’.
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[Also] Be creative and think about the right things. And that there are other ways than, for example, in this story, killing Hitler. And, you know, there’s they’re, they’re still going on with fighting against him, but in different ways.
Let’s talk a bit about your co-star George MacKay. How do you get on with George?
Oh, so good, so good. I mean, [Mackay is] just a lovely person. I really loved his work before, and it was great. I was so relieved on the day I met him because I knew, ‘Okay, it’s possible to, you know, to really get to know this guy’ – that was important for me and for him as well.
To be able to play this kind of friendship, we had to share some time together off-set, right. So we did, and we saw each other, and he would come by; we would cook something, watch movies, go on walks and really learn more about our similarities or differences. That was so important to be able to play this friendship, and also to have a good time on set.
My favourite scene in the movie is the one in the beer hall, where the argument about politics spills out of good-natured humour into quite an aggressive fight. Can you tell me a little bit about that scene?
That’s actually my favourite scene in the movie because quite a lot [of that scene] is improvised. The scene is about best friends having a discussion that turns into a fight. So we had to find a way in which this would feel as real as possible, so Christian and Ben Power [writer] encouraged us to bring our own arguments to the scene and present them while we were doing the scene so everything would feel as alive as possible.
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I was so scared of that, but in the end, it really turned out well. When you’re making a movie, and you have a discussion, there’s all this technical stuff, and one actor says his line, then you have a break, then you say your line, and you’re not able to interrupt each other, that was all gone so we could just have a real fight which was great.
I found it very shocking. The only thing I can think that’s more intense than that in the film is when you confront Jeremy Irons and his character, Neville Chamberlain, what was it like working with Jeremy, and how did you feel filming that scene where you essentially had to attack him?
That day went by so fast. He’s a gentleman and really curious about his job and what he’s doing. He’s so helpful I remember times he would tell me to watch the emphasis on this sentence, I don’t know, he gave me tips, but at the same time, I felt, because it’s Jeremy Irons and he’s such a big actor, and it was a different language, I could learn a lot from him.
I think that this film avoids a lot of the cliches around Nazi Germany and Hitler. How important do you think it was to avoid those pitfalls and cliches that we see in movies so often?
Very important, because if it was [cliched], there would be nothing new about Munich. Munich is new because it really tries to get a sense of what life felt like back then. I remember a moment where I was sitting with an extra, and he was playing Ernst von Weizsäcker.
Weizsäcker was a big political figure in [Nazi] Germany, and he was basically the boss of the foreign ministry. This extra he had no lines, but h had the clothes and looked like Weizsäcker. Then Christian would come up to us in the scene and would say,’ Hey, could you talk to him like, as Weizsäcker?’
He said, ‘Yes, of course’, because he read [Weizsäcker’s] biography and it was so great. I thought, ‘OK, that’s another level’. That’s the thing about Christian’s movies. Everyone is so involved in what’s being done and how it’s being made.
Munich – The Edge of War is available to stream on Netflix now.