Hollywood’s long-running obsession with World War 2 – one of the most inauspicious chapters in human history – means we’ve seen most of that conflict adapted to the silver screen in various war movies at one point or another. It’s easy to see why; as far as conflicts go, there’s an undeniable if slightly simplistic, narrative to it that makes it a very cinematic war.
What you don’t tend to see, though, is the preceding few years, before the bloodshed began, as politicians across Europe desperately fought a war of words across conference tables in an attempt to curb the territorial ambitions of the Nazi menace. The new Netflix movie, Munich – The Edge of War, demonstrates however that while this period in history may have been less explosive, it was no less dramatic.
Set in 1938, with Germany marshalling its armies on the Czechoslovakia border, The Edge of War sees Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Jeremy Irons) desperately attempting to maintain peace in Europe. As Chamberlain faces Hitler in the negotiations, two old friends, Hugh Legat (George MacKay) and Paul von Hartmann (Jannis Niewöhner), conspire to reveal the true scale of the Nazi’s terrible ambitions.
Edge of War is a peculiar war movie in that it’s less interested in glorifying the carnage of battle, instead extolling the honour is endeavouring to preserve peace whatever the cost. There’s a slight revisionist bent to the film that makes Chamberlain more heroic and noble than he’s perhaps presented in the history books, but for the most part, it works.
A lot of that comes down to Irons. He’s such a commanding presence in the film you can’t help but believe, however briefly, that he may just avert the war. Unfortunately, despite tremendous effort on the part of Irons, the film never really manages to distract you from the elephant in the room.
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We know that WW2 is inevitable, and Chamberlain will fail. Charitably you could say it adds a layer of tragedy to Chamberlain’s story. If you were feeling slightly more vicious, you might suggest it shows just how incompetent he really was. Still, Irons gives it his all and delivers one of the best scenes in the film during a blistering monologue about the value of peace.
It also helps that Chamberlain is essentially window dressing to the real meat and potatoes of the film, the relationship between Legat and von Hartmann, and it’s here the film really excels. Freed from the shackles of historical record, director Christian Schwochow is given more room to flex his creative muscles and really show off what he can really do.
Edge of War is a gripping thriller with plenty of twists and turns that’ll keep spy movie fans happy, but there’s something more human to the story of Legat and von Hartmann. This is a story about friends that presents a surprisingly empathetic view of how seductive yet corrosive fascism can be.
Usually, films set in Nazi Germany are replete with images of jackbooted thugs ransacking the houses of their enemies as they march through the streets of Berlin, their evil explicit for all to see. Here though, the usual stereotypes are dopped, and instead, we see why von Hartmann was convinced that the Nazis had the best intentions for Germany, and how pained he is to learn of their evil.
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Niewöhner was something of a revelation for me; he plays the reformed Nazi so well. It would have been easy for him to up the angst, but he’s incredibly naturalistic, hiding his horror behind a mask of cool-faced pragmatism. It goes without saying that MacKay is brilliant, but when you put him with Niewöhner, they’re like ketchup and mustard on a hot dog, two great things coming together to make something even better.