Thursday 6 January 2022

The brink: "Munich: The Edge of War"

The British film industry carries the cobbled together Darkest Hour to a couple of Oscars, and Netflix send in the tanks. The lavish European co-production Munich: The Edge of War wields Robert Harris's speculative historical fiction as one possible corrective to its predecessor's outright bunkum: instead of Gary Oldman's showboating (whether we liked it or not, a defining performance of the Brexit era), we get a closer emphasis on policy and statesmanship, and a deeper understanding of war - whether the waging thereof, or the diplomacy that keeps it at bay - as a total team effort. Harris's conceit was to revisit the run-up to WW2 from the perspective of those lowly policy wonks who found themselves in the thick of it as the storm first gathered over Europe, did their level best to predict the weather, then proved powerless to contain the devastation we've seen filmed fifty thousand times over. Getting us into this world requires one substantial contrivance - and our willingness to accept the idea that two composite characters who end up on opposite sides of the conflict should have met as students at Oxford in the early 1930s. By 1938, Hugh Legat (George Mackay) has risen to a secretarial post in the British Cabinet, running increasingly urgent communiques into the offices of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Jeremy Irons) and seeing his marriage fall apart amid the late-night efforts to rein in the German and Italian leaders. Over in Berlin, meanwhile, Legat's old uni pal Paul von Hartmann (Jannis Niewöhner) has started plotting with more moderate members of the Wehrmacht to get the German chancellor to fall on the sabre he's been so loudly rattling. Both men have the same aim - to avert conflict - but they set about it in pleasingly different ways, Legat bustling boyishly around Whitehall, von Hartmann venturing into cabarets and fleshpots so as to keep his scheming surreptitious. Yet this chapter of history remains a done deal; it's one of those movies where you know the ending going in, and - perhaps to your surprise - it turns out to matter not one jot.

In part, that's because screenwriter Ben Power and director Christian Schwochow recognise that even failed dealmaking - deep-backroom toing-and-froing - can in itself sustain a movie, if done with the right, propulsive energy; for most of these two hours, you do feel history hanging in the balance all over again. If the fresh-faced not-quite-love-triangle at its centre - with Paul's sister Lenya (Liv Lisa Fries) as its notional third point - initially looks like commercial compromise on either Harris's or Netflix's part, it keeps paying off at some dramatic level. Not least with the irony that the prospect of war between Britain and Germany affords two young men who've drifted apart - a fact Paul attributes to Hugh's cold-fish Englishness - the chance to renew their bond in hushed tones around the backchannels of Europe. Cold fish he may be, but Hugh is plainly capable of maintaining a distance the hotter-headed Paul is incapable of - but then the latter is very much in the eye of this particular storm. I initially wondered whether Mackay was too young for the role - it's the old story of 21st century actors thrown into 20th century action - but these characters do grow (and then outgrow one another) as the film progresses; the payoff is a quietly brilliant parting of the ways that mirrors and contrasts the conviviality of the Oxford-set prologue. There's plenty going on around them, first among equals Irons' foursquare repositioning of Chamberlain as a doddering yet decent man being rapidly outmanoeuvred by an up-and-coming sociopath. "I would stand up against that wall [to be shot] if it would prevent another war," he tells Hugh while feeding the birds in the Downing Street garden, and while it's sobering in 2022 to be faced with a British PM demonstrating that level of conviction (and that level of concern for the welfare of others), there's also a sense in which this man's liberal emblandishments are as balloons when set against an opponent playing a new and deadly game. (One of the film's quiet tragedies: this Chamberlain sincerely seems to think a fascist like Hitler could someday be his friend.)

Throughout, the editorial line is strong and detailed enough to make Darkest Hour look like a paperbag in the wind, not that that would be any major achievement. Yet Schwochow also ensures the film is always in movement, recognising this moment had a particular, dreadful momentum, that of the war machine gearing up. The 1938 scenes open with the sight of a Zeppelin caught on a building; the political discussion takes place on planes or trains carrying these men toward their destiny; and Mackay and Niewöhner are good, athletic scurriers, fun to watch as they port telegrams from office to office. What the film nails is the flux of any given political scene; as the diplomatic chatter flips casually between German and English, you also spot Netflix's faith - post-Parasite, post-Squid Game, post-Lupin - that mainstream audiences may finally be getting over their decades-long aversion to subtitles. True, the Munich conference itself - when we get there - proves as static as conferences tend to be; it also introduces us to the weirdest Hitler in screen history in Ulrich Matthes, previously Goebbels in Downfall. This dead-eyed baritone suggests less the floppy-fringed, hysterical zealot Hitler of memory than the lovechild of Ron Mael from Sparks and Robert Blake from Lost Highway; every time he appears, you can't help but think "jeez Chamberlain, why would you want to make friends with him?". Yet the drama here lies in the sight of the kids huffing and sweating around corridors to provide the old men of Europe with the intel they hope can stave off calamity; it's Run Lola Run with a downer ending. Some of Schwochow's choices - like a late-film fistfight - are a touch fanciful, the kind of trade-offs you probably make when producers set out to convert upmarket airport fiction into big-budget content for a latter-day streaming provider. But equally he knows when to pause and let this moment's awful gravity sink in - one shot of Mackay's haunted expression as a crowd of commuters drift blithely past a Peace In Our Time newsstand speaks multitudes about the way this generation was about to be swept along on the tide of history. Sometimes societies leap feet first into the abyss; sometimes they rally their resources, and pull themselves back from the brink. Darkest Hour proved a black hole in multiple respects, but Schwochow's film manages something involving and illuminating at a major tipping point.

Munich: The Edge of War opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow, and will be available to stream via Netflix from January 21.

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