Munich: The Edge of War is a taut adaptation of Robert Harris’s espionage page-turner

The latest of Robert Harris’s historical thrillers to hit the screen, Netflix’s upcoming Munich: The Edge of War pitches Jeremy Irons and George MacKay into the intrigue surrounding the Munich Agreement of 1938. Euan Harris, one of the critics on this year’s LFF Critics Mentorship Programme, reviews.

28 October 2021

By Euan Harris

Munich: The Edge of War (2021)
London Film Festival

Munich: The Edge of War is a cautious, austere political thriller, set in 1938 during the negotiation of the infamous Munich Agreement. It’s the latest page-to-screen adaptation of the work of that master of the political thriller, Robert Harris, whose page-turners – including Fatherland, Pompeii, An Officer and a Spy and the Cicero trilogy – focus on some of history’s most famous moments and figures. 

Due to land on Netflix in 2022, following its premiere at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2021, Christian Schwochow’s film is unlike your typical Hollywood suspense drama. Despite the espionage narrative, it’s not about spies. The focus is on diplomats, caught up in events way above their authority. There’s an old-fashioned quality, in which the passing of a note is as exciting as an Aston Martin decked out with gadgets. It’s unflashy, yet effective. 

Adapted here by screenwriter Ben Power, Harris’s story reframes Neville Chamberlain’s controversial decision to appease Hitler not as an act of weakness but as a shrewd, necessary manoeuvre in preparation for an inevitable conflict. By focusing on events in both Britain and Germany, the story digs into the political tensions on both sides of the channel. Characters schooled in the Oxbridge debating societies of the 1930s wrestle with complex political stances, seeing the merits of both sides. The central question: is forceful action ultimately a better solution than calm, measured discussion? 

This is most prevalent in the German sequences, showing how a society can crave a national identity so much that it wilfully ignores the bigotry and hatred happening right under its nose. Harris has been transparent with his real-life politics in the past, and it’s hard not to see allusions to our present. In a world where nasty political rhetoric seems constantly on the rise all over the globe, the debates happening on screen in 1938 feel oddly contemporary. There’s a cruel irony watching now, in a new period of Euro tension, knowing how much these two nations have shifted places on the political spectrum. The film avoids easy answers, depicting the complexity of this turbulent period of history with intelligence and nuance.

To his credit, Schwochow – who worked on season 3 of The Crown, as well as numerous German films and shows – made the welcome decision to feature both English and German language sequences, so we’re spared having to listen to any phoney, exaggerated accents. It gives the action the ring of authenticity. Robust performances from George MacKay and Jannis Niewöhner in the central roles – they play former school friends who are now government officials on the opposing sides – help to maintain the rising tension. They reveal the high stakes in quiet, subtle ways: furtive looks, hushed conversations, stiff body language. Jeremy Irons brings dignity to Chamberlain too, playing him as a shrewd operator with a wry sense of humour beneath his venerable front. 

That said, the film can be pedestrian at times – the unflashy approach looks quite ordinary at first glance. The production design is impressive, especially when recreating the grand hotels and cramped beer halls of Nazi Germany, but it rarely registers as more than period backdrop. This is far from Netflix’s most ‘cinematic’ new effort, with a plain, conventional visual style that makes it seem more suited to the small screen. It lacks the hard edge of other Harris films, like Roman Polanski’s The Ghost (2010), where the author adapted the screenplay himself, tapping into the deep cynicism of the source material. 

As a producer only here, he’s further removed from the storytelling, and, as such, Munich: The Edge of War doesn’t display his narrative fingerprints quite as clearly. Fortunately, it’s still rich with detail, and while this is a story whose ending we know already, the taut plot keeps us in its grip.

About the LFF Critics Mentorship Scheme

Acknowledging a damaging lack of diversity in film criticism, exacerbated by a lack of opportunities for emerging critics to gain experience and have meaningful engagement with publications, the BFI LFF Critics Mentorship programme returned for a fourth year at the festival, giving a meaningful experience and opportunity to a range of talented emerging film writers.

In the aftermath of last year’s global uprisings in protest of systemic racism and in support of Black Lives Matter, now more than ever there is still the need for more tangible actions to be taken in response to racial inequality in the film industry. We are looking at how we can better serve not only Black writers, but also writers from other underrepresented communities by offering mentorship that can pave the way to future opportunities for paid work in the media.  

This year, we offered the BFI LFF Critics Mentorship programme to eight mentees, with guaranteed spaces for Black writers and writers who have a disability, impairment, learning difference or long term condition. 

The mentees were invited to experience the BFI London Film Festival as an accredited press delegate with an intensive programme over the first six days of the festival. Journalist, commentator and founder of The British Blacklist, Akua Gyamfi and journalist, former Empire Magazine editor-in-chief and author Terri White were overall mentors to each of the participants who were also individually paired with a mentor from each media partner to support them and produce work. They also had the opportunity to pitch a festival comment piece or review to for the BFI website.

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