Reviewed for &, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: Christian Schwochow
Screenwriter: Ben Power, novel by Robert Harris
Cast: Jeremy Irons, Jessica Brown Findlay, George MacKay, Jannis Niewöhner, Alex Jennings, Anjli Mohindra, August Diehl
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 12/10/21
Opens: December 31, 2021 in theaters. January 21, 2022 on Netflix.

A study of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s meeting with Hitler in 1938 in an attempt to avoid World War 2 could be deadly dull if treated as a history written for scholars. Happily, for ordinary folks who majored in Computer Science because they’d rather make a buck than get a hundred rejections for college teaching posts by majoring in History, there is historical fiction. Historical fiction may be dramatized for, well, dramatic effect, but through its books and movies we come away with a better guide to the emotions of world leaders than we would by sticking to often dull readings of historical documents.

That’s where Christian Schwochow comes in and scores. Schwochow, whose “Cracks in the Shell” (2011) looks at a woman who can’t sleep and who bangs her head against the wall, finds time now to focus on two people, one high-level British attaché and one German diplomat, who have many times wanted to bang their heads against the wall. Their agenda runs into roadblocks that appear impossible to clear. And what an adventure they have, one risking his life to bring down Hitler and the devastation he sees around Germany since the monster became chancellor in 1933. Scripter Ben Power adapts best-selling author Robert Harris’s book “Munich,” a novelist who in “Fatherland” writes about a Nazi Germany that has won the war. In other words, you can expect Harris’s imagination to come to life in “Munich,” while at the same time Schwochow follows actual events that take place in 1938 when a disastrous agreement is signed by Hitler and Chamberlain.

Or was it really a disaster that resulted in Chamberlain’s being heaved out of power one year later? Revisionist historians say that the PM needed that time to build up Britain’s armed forces. Conventional historians hold that the PM was a naïve leader guilty of an appeasement that encouraged Hitler to take not only the Sudeten segment of Czechoslovakia and then that country itself only to move on to Poland and bigger things. See this movie and decide for yourself about the fellow whose return to London, leaving the aircraft with an umbrella, has made the bumbershoot a symbol of cowardly appeasement.

Filmed by Frank Lamm in the Cunard building in Liverpool and on location in Munich, Schwochow takes us to London in the autumn of 1938 where Sir Neville Chamberlain (Jeremy Irons) is wondering how he can keep the peace with Germany and maybe win a Nobel for that achievement. At a time that even our own Franklin Delano Roosevelt still hoped for good relations with the Teutonic state, Chamberlain relies on his private secretary Hugh Legat (George MacKay) to do more than bring him tea and scones. Legat is an Oxford graduate seen in the opener drunk as a skunk and joshing with his German friend and fellow student Paul Hartman (Jannis Niewöhner). Six years later, Legat’s Oxford diploma has paid off as he is now dressed in a bespoke suit and hat, looking like a man selling advertising on Madison Avenue, but instead finding himself as personal secretary to the prime minister. For his part Paul likewise benefits from studying and getting drunk at Britain’s most prestigious university, speaking English as well as Legat speaks German.

Tension is created when Paul, loyal to Germany but not personally to Hitler, discovers documents that he needs to pass on to his old friend. The documents refute Chamberlain’s pie-in-the-sky belief that Hitler would be satisfied with Sudentenland. After all, didn’t the German leader say, more or less, “Gib mir Sudetenland und ich werde keine territorialen Forderungen mehr in Europa stellen?” (“Give me Sudentenland and I will make no other territorial demands in Europe.”)

You may have seen other movies about the war, leaving the theater believing that Germans all spoke English. Not true! This time Germans speak their own language (with fine subtitles) and the Briton speaks German only when communicating with his friend in a German café. Paul and Hugh have chemistry. They look like real buddies, maybe recalling their more carefree days chugging Veuve clicquot instead of Lowenbrau. This time they are on a mission to convince the British PM not to sign an agreement with a “monster” because the latter’s aim is to make all of Europe speak German.

Among the high drama in Munich is one disgraceful spectacle of a large crowd rubbernecking to see a trio of Jews forced to scrub the sidewalk with a toothbrush, but otherwise there is almost no footage that would lead us to believe that far more chaos would be inflicted. The way that Chamberlain deals with the document, the minutes of a high-level meeting revealing Hitler’s real plans, might make you want to wring the PM’s wrinkled neck. This brings us back to the big question: was Chamberlain so lacking reality that he believed the German chancellor, or is he wisely giving his country time to build up the Royal Air Force?

Schwochow has time for some domestic conflict, primarily Pamela Legat’s (Jessica Brown Findlay) disappointment that her husband is spending too much time at work and unwilling to let her in on the high-level negotiations to which he is privy. We all know what will happen, so it’s not a spoiler to note that Hitler proceeded to invade Poland, bringing France and England into the war. At the same time, most Americans, as sick of war as we are now, wanted to let Europe fight its own battles, but as they say in Yiddish, “Mann Tracht, un Gott Lacht,” or “Man plans and God laughs.”

Schwochow keeps the melodrama on a sober level, even during the moments that Paul Hartman in a private meeting with Der Führer, has the opportunity to shoot the man, doubtless a bit of fiction but one which raises this question: If you could have killed Hitler in 1938, stopping war talk, saving six million Jews, twenty million Russians, half a million Americans with a grand total of seventy-one million lives lost–but resulting in your death by hanging–would you do it?

Superb acting by the two robust, would-be heroes and a solid, authentic performance by Jeremy Irons who is the spit and image of the disgraced prime minister, make this compelling viewing, though if you skipped the high school history class that dealt with the Munich conference, you’d better read up, at least the article Munich Agreement – Wikipedia to avoid being lost.

129 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – A-
Acting – B+
Technical – B+
Overall – B+

By Harvey Karten

Harvey Karten is the founder of the The New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) an organization composed of Internet film critics based in New York City. The group meets once a year, in December, for voting on its annual NYFCO Awards.

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