Munich: The Edge of War


Neville Chamberlain hopes for peace in our time.

(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

Toni Erdmann


Where the wild things are.

(2016) Comedy (Sony Classics) Sandra Hüller, Peter Simonischek, Michael Wittenborn, Thomas Loibl, Trystan Pütter, Ingrid Bisu, Hadewych Minis, Lucy Russell, Victoria Cocias, Alexandru Papadopol, Viktoria Malektorovych, Ingrid Burkhard, Jürg Löw, Ruth Reinecke, Vlad Ivanov, Mihal Manolache, Radu Bȁnzaru, Niels Borann, Radu Dumitrache, Klara Höfels.. Directed by Maren Ade

 

We all know somebody in our lives who simply can’t take anything seriously. Who knows, it even might be you. Behind the occasionally inappropriate humor and unending stream of jokes however a little wisdom might actually show up even more unexpectedly than you might think.

Winfried Conradi (Simonischek) is a music teacher living in Germany, who has retired none too gracefully from his profession. At his final performance with his student chorus, he has them all dress like zombies and he as the Grim Reaper, a joke that has his colleagues and parents scratching their heads, not to mention family members who have gathered to celebrate his retirement. Among their number is his only daughter Ines (Hüller) who has just jetted in from Shanghai on her way back to Bucharest. She works for one of those corporate consulting firms that usually advise big companies to lay off great numbers of their staff. She has a new project with an oil company whose boss is eager to get the cost savings of a mass layoff but doesn’t want to appear to be the bad guy so Ines will do it by recommending it. In taking one for the team, she knows she might finally get that promotion she’s been promised over and over again – but has never received.

Ines holds off her father at arm’s length with her cell phone grasped firmly in hand; not all the calls she claims “she has to take” are actually there but whatever works to give herself some space with her dad with whom the relationship has been stretched to the breaking point as long as they can remember. Shortly after Ines leaves with a half-hearted invitation for him to visit, an event occurs for Winfried that convinces him he needs to connect with his daughter – somehow.

Without any prior warning he shows up at her office in Bucharest. She takes him to a party at the American embassy but things become awkward when she begins to realize that her dad is much more socially accomplished than she is. Worse still, most of the people she works with are men who are either dismissive of her abilities, attracted to her sexually or simply hostile towards women in general. The visit with her dad doesn’t go well and he heads back home.

Only he doesn’t arrive at his destination. Instead, he shows up as Toni Erdmann, a life coach with a rumpled appearance, a brunette wig with long flowing locks and outrageous false teeth with a distinct buck-toothed grin. Ines is horrified particularly when “Toni” claims he is the life coach of the oil company’s CEO that she is trying to woo to go with her company’s program. And the longer “Toni” hangs around, the more empty her life seems.

This was on the shortlist of the Foreign Language Oscars this year and was a critical hit at Cannes, although critics were absolutely mystified that it was virtually ignored by the juries there. I have to say that I’m not on board this film as some of my colleagues are; at more than two and a half hours long it is more of a marathon than a sprint. Ade apparently chose no to edit down further for the sake of pacing; on the other hand there are scenes that go on far too long. For example, there’s a scene when Ines sings “I Will Always Love You” – the Whitney Houston hit – from beginning to end that could have been shortened, as could a scene at one of many, many parties and social outings that it appears that Romanian workers have a far more party atmosphere than their American counterparts.

The humor here is more subtle and sometimes awkward; Americans of late have seemed to prefer more outrageous, over-the-top humor that is both raunchy and essentially brainless. This is by no means a joke fest – often the viewer needs to think about what he or she has just witnessed for a moment or two before the absurdity settles in. As Da Queen might characterize it, the humor here is quiet which is a nice change from the loud overbearing comedies that are in favor at the moment.

The performances by both Simonischek and Hüller are outstanding. Simonischek, a renowned Austrian actor, never lets the character get to be a caricature of itself. Because he plays things low-key the absurd situations that Winfried/Toni creates have more impact. Hüller is also a revelation, giving Ines an uptight frayed nerve tone that is a poke at the career-obsessed in general. She’s so busy earning a living that she is not actually living and her dad knows that and tries, in his own way, to point it out to her. Sometimes it can be actually touching when he hugs her near the end after a bizarre appearance at perhaps the most awkward birthday party ever caught on film.

We do see a change in Ines as the film progresses but not one so great that it beggars imagination. Instead, we see a subtle change in her as she starts to let the cracks in her façade open up and allow her true face to reveal itself. It isn’t always an easy journey here – some of the scenes go on far too long – but otherwise this is a terrific and occasionally brilliant film that may test your patience over its running time but is a worthwhile investment of that time nonetheless.

REASONS TO GO: The humor is subtle which is a nice change of pace. Terrific performances by Simonischek and Hüller make this easy to watch.
REASONS TO STAY: Way too long.
FAMILY VALUES: Sexual content of a very overt nature, graphic nudity, some brief drug use and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: An English language remake is on the way, with Kristin Wiig and Jack Nicholson in the lead roles. If the casting holds, it will be Nicholson’s first onscreen appearance in more than a decade.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/7/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 93/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Nine Lives
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Harmonium