Munich: The Edge of War is an enjoyable fiction; viewers must not confuse it for a dramatization of Neville Chamberlain’s betrayal of Czechoslovakia.
The movie is based on the novel by Robert Harris, who also wrote the dieselpunk classic Fatherland (review here). Jeremy Irons is predictably excellent. The costumes and sets are flawless. Scenes were shot in the actual Führerbau in Munich, where the 1938 conference took place.
The film adds a few action scenes to Harris’ plot to make it more thrilling, as well as two meaningful female characters to make the story less male-dominated.
Unfortunately, the one part of Harris’ novel the film downplays is a crucial one: the so-called Oster conspiracy, named after German counterespionage chief Hans Oster, to remove Hitler from power if he had attacked Czechoslovakia.
In the book, one of the two fictional characters, Paul von Hartmann (played by Jannis Niewöhner), is part of the plot, which was the most advanced of its kind in the years before the war. Harris makes clear that if Chamberlain and his French counterpart, Édouard Daladier, had held firm in Munich, and refused Hitler the right to annex the German-speaking Sudetenland, the German Army and security services would have moved against the dictator to prevent all-out war in Europe. Far from giving Britain time to prepare for war, Chamberlain missed an opportunity to prevent war.
In our world, Chamberlain didn’t know the extent of the conspiracy. But to me that seemed the point of Harris’ novel: to make his appeasement look even worse in hindsight. The movie turns this on its head. It gives Chamberlain direct evidence of Hitler’s far-reaching territorial ambitions as well as the conspiracy against him, and still praises the British leader for signing the Sudetenland over to the Germans, which in effect signed Czechoslovakia’s death warrant (its strongest defenses were in the Sudetenland border region) and convinced Hitler he had nothing to fear from the Western democracies.
The film tells viewers Chamberlain bought Britain time to prepare for the Second World War, and to his credit he did expand the Royal Air Force and Territorial (reserve) Army. But these preparations didn’t stop Hitler. They didn’t prevent the Fall of France. It wasn’t until the Battles of El Alamein in 1942 that the British first halted an Axis offensive, and this owed nothing to Chamberlain.
Iron plays Chamberlain as a weary but wise old peacenik. Biographers have described the man as insecure, obstinate, thin-skinned and vain.
Christian Schwochow (who also directed three episodes of The Crown) has made an exciting movie, but anyone who wants to learn the real history of “Munich” should read a book. Harris’, despite being a novel, is not a bad place to start.