(2021) Historical Drama (Netflix) George MacKay, Jeremy Irons, Jessica Brown Findlay, Jannis Niewöhner, Liv Lisa Fries, Raphael Sowole, Sandra Hüller, August Diehl, Ulrich Matthes, Richard Dillane, Alex Jennings, Mark Lewis Jones, Hannes Wegener, Aidan Hennessey, Nicholas Farrell, Rainer Sellien, Abigail Cruttenden, Helen Clyro, Nicholas Shaw, Robert Bathurst, Anjli Mohindra. Directed by Christian Schwochow
Students of history will remember the image of a jubilant British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain waving a sheaf of papers in his hand upon his return from the Munich Conference with Adolph Hitler in 1938, exclaiming “I bring you peace in our time,” after getting the German Chancellor to agree not to invade the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia by essentially handing over the territory to him. The policy of appeasement in order to provide “peace at any price” turned out to be tragically wrong, and Chamberlain was excoriated for it by contemporaries, but also by history.
This film, based on a historical novel by Robert Harris, tries to shed a different light on the outcome of the Conference. It opens with Oxford students George Legat (MacKay), Paul von Hartmann (Niewöhner) and Paul’s girlfriend Lenya (Fries) celebrating their graduation. Von Hartmann is particularly ecstatic, knowing he is going home to what he terms a “new Germany,” following the triumph of the Nazi party, taking a country bled dry by World War I and the onerous terms of surrender that was placed upon it. Six years later, Paul is a diplomat in Germany who’s attitude to the Nazi party has taken a serious about-face. Meanwhile, George is now married to Pamela (Findlay) and working as a private secretary to Prime Minister Chamberlain (Irons).
Chamberlain is frustrated at Hitler’s (Matthes) saber-rattling and refusal to negotiate. Europe stands on the precipice of another ruinous war, and nobody has forgotten how long it took to recover from the last one – and in fact, it could be argued that they were still recovering. So Chamberlain puts together a conference in Munich to try and hammer out an agreement that would prevent war. Legat, who speaks fluent German, is brought along to translate. MI-6 also sees an opportunity for Legat to perhaps ferret out some intelligence about Hitler’s plans.
Boy, does he. Paul’s current lover Helen (Hüller) has come into possession of a typed-out document that outlines Hitler’s plans to plunge Europe into a massive war, with Germany eating up territory, shipping undesirables East to labor camps, and resettling their land with good Aryan stock. Paul manages to get George’s attention and George arranges a hasty meeting with Chamberlain, but one of Hitler’s bodyguards (Diehl) who also happens to be an old friend of Paul’s, is keeping a watchful eye on him.
The movie tends to emphasize the espionage aspect of the younger, completely fictional characters, ignoring the opportunity to give us some insight into Chamberlain and the other historical characters in the movie, whose actions in Munich would have such enormous repercussions. To be honest, the espionage content is far less interesting.
Irons portrays Chamberlain as a man absolutely certain that he is right and working for the right end. In an odd aside, the movie seems to indicate that Chamberlain’s actions, far from merely giving Hitler the green light to do what he wished, actually gave the Allies needed time to prepare for the war, which is a bit of an odd way of looking at it.
We never really get a sense of the tension of living in a police state and while the cinematography is fairly nice (particularly in the opening sequence), the score is a bit bombastic and intrusive. Also, the opening and closing credits are done in kind of a weird Sixties Rankin-Bass kind of style which doesn’t suit the film at all.
The trouble with historical dramas is that we generally know how the movie is going to turn out. Nobody needed a spoiler alert to know that the Titanic was going to sink. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t something to see here, particularly on the occasions when the film looks more closely at Chamberlain and what drove him to the decisions he made. I wish they would have concentrated more on that and jettisoned the ill-advised and not-very-well-executed thriller material.
REASONS TO SEE: There are certainly some modern parallels to the return of authoritarianism.
REASONS TO AVOID: Focuses far too much on the espionage thriller aspect rather than on the historical drama, which is much more fascinating.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, brief violence, period smoking and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the lead characters of von Hartmann and Legat are fictional, they are based on real people; the document that von Hartmann risked so much to smuggle to Chamberlain actually existed, although there is no evidence that Chamberlain ever actually saw it.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/8/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews; Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Valkyrie
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: American Gadfly