In this ‘dia-blog’ historians Alan Allport (Professor of History, Syracuse University, New York) and author of Britain at Bay: The Epic Story of the Second World War, 1938-1941 (2020) and Julie Gottlieb (Professor of Modern History, University of Sheffield), share their thoughts about the new Netflix film Munich– The Edge of War (2022).
The film uses the suspenseful days of the Four Powers Conference that took place in Munich on 29-30 September, 1938, as the stage for a political thriller. Based on Robert Harris’s novel Munich (2017), the plot aspires to cut to the heart of the strategically and psychologically terrifying situation faced by Europe should Hitler’s escalating demands for Lebensraum not be met. Hitler was forcing the ceding of the mainly German-speaking Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia to the Reich. While the Czechs themselves were not invited to the negotiating table, Britain, Italy and France agreed to Hitler’s demands in order to avert war, and Chamberlain persuaded Hitler to sign a further document of Anglo-German understanding to press the same point.
In the film our sympathies are meant to lie with the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, whose reputation has swung, for decades, from that of the celebrated saviour of peace and wise old gentleman with only the best intentions, to that of the ‘provincial undertaker’ and Hitler’s gullible dupe.
The force of historical fiction cuts like a double edged sword for the historian. The power of film (and fiction) is that it captures the imagination. It visualises, it engages or enrages by romanticising or villainising, but inevitably in ways that can distort the historical record. For example, now that we have seen Jeremy Irons as Neville Chamberlain, will most of us ever again be able to unsee the suave and smoothly-spoken actor when we animate Chamberlain in our mind’s eye? In real life Chamberlain was rather sepia toned in pallor, and not just because of the yellow-tinge of 1930s photography.
Considering this is a work of historical fiction that began as a novel, do you feel the novel has been successfully adapted for screen?
Allport: Well, in terms of the plot, the movie remains fairly faithful to the book. A few subplots are trimmed down or excised and some of the minor characters have been omitted or altered but these are the sorts of changes you’d expect to happen in a film adaptation.
I think the more important question is how well the story succeeds via the medium of cinema as opposed to literature. Munich is not a counterfactual history like Robert Harris’s book Fatherland, so the main political events unfurl in the film just as they did in real life – Chamberlain and Daladier will go to Munich, the Sudetenland will be ceded to Germany, and presumably the war will break out in September 1939 as in real life. The problem then is to inject some tension into a story with a predetermined outcome.
My own feeling is that Harris’s historical novels have always been more effective at evoking a certain mood of the past through meticulously well researched detail than by providing a lot of suspenseful plot twists for the reader to follow. It’s easier to do this in book form than on the screen, I think. I didn’t feel the on-screen version of Munich absorbed me as much in the subjective sense of what it must have been like to sit in the conference chamber with Hitler and Chamberlain. This is an aesthetic rather than a historical complaint, however!
On the topic of the aesthetic qualities, film has the ability to capture mood, feeling and details of material culture in living colour. How well does the film express the general atmosphere of the September Crisis?
Gottlieb: My own approach has been to consider the history from below of the Munich Crisis, and to better understand how opinion, reactions and emotional responses ranged across class, gender, generational, regional lines and, of course, political lines.
Here and there the film gestures to ordinary people and the deep impact of these events on quotidian lives– evacuation, gas masks, protests, mass celebrations like it was Mafeking night, allusion to the gratitude of ‘millions of mothers’ in Europe, and a few glimpses into domestic interiors. This was all backdrop and background, but generally well observed and well placed nonetheless.
The subtitle of the film ‘the edge of war’ is evocative (the novel has no subtitle), reinforcing the cliff-hanger feature of the political suspense genre, but also suggestive of the edginess and nervousness experienced by populations across Europe and beyond.
Still, the story Munich tells is about great/guilty men and a few good women, narrating it in the same conventional way as so much of the top-down scholarship.
On that note, as it is hard to get away from the fact that most of the scholarship has focused on the political leaders, how does the film correspond to the historiographical reassessments and revision of Chamberlain’s foreign policy and his reputation?
Allport: Harris’s book is more strident in its defense of Chamberlain. Because many of the contextual scenes and conversations in the novel are not present in the film, it presents a less well developed and coherent case for Chamberlain’s foreign policy. The result is an odd mixture of arguments (implicit or openly stated), some of which would be familiar to the real life Chamberlain, and others not.
The final scene in the aircraft as the British diplomats return home from Munich is particularly interesting in this regard. Chamberlain (Irons) argues that by getting Hitler to sign the ‘piece of paper’ agreeing to resolve future differences peacefully he has created a trap which will expose the German leader as a liar in the eyes of the world if he continues to seek conflict. This will give any war against Hitler a moral authority it would otherwise lack. I could imagine Chamberlain perhaps saying this, although he sincerely hoped and believed Hitler would be true to his word. However, Irons goes on to say that he’s willing to risk looking a fool if he is proven wrong. I very much doubt the extremely vain Chamberlain would ever knowingly risk such a thing!
In the credits the film baldly states that the Munich agreement ‘bought a year’s time’ for Britain to rearm and was therefore crucial in the eventual defeat of Germany. It’s a rather strange assertion to come so late and the movie hasn’t really prepared the case for it for the audience. Historians remain divided as to whether it’s actually true or not.
Gottlieb: As Alan has said, Munich–The Edge of War is very pro-Chamberlain. Filmgoers may wonder where Winston Churchill is hiding in the film. Indeed, Churchill isn’t even alluded to, at least not by name. Is it justified to airbrush Churchill out? One could argue that Churchill’s star has shone brightly on the big screen for long enough, most recently in The Gathering Storm (2002), The Darkest Hour (2017), Churchill (2017) and Netflix’s The Crown. Although Churchill would have the last word– in fact, hundreds of thousands of words– about the Munich Agreement and its shameful consequences, he was a minor player in the diplomatic events in the autumn of 1938. He was not even the most obvious leader of the anti-appeasers, a group that in any case lacked organisational coherence and consensus about an alternative foreign policy. Opinion polls and pundits speculated that were Chamberlain to go, he would be succeeded as PM by either the former or the current foreign secretary, Anthony Eden or Lord Halifax. Incidentally, it is Halifax who is much less justifiably airbrushed out of the film.
You could say that the fictional male protagonists Hugh Legat and Paul von Hartmann serve as stand-ins for the appeasement sceptics and would-be resistors, embodying their sentiments and sensibilities, not to mention their elevated social status. In other ways, the fictional leads are less plausible. In order to make the plot work they are like passepartouts, with access to space, places and leaders– this just doesn’t ring true.
The mood of the film is a kind of pre-Churchillian Britain, almost a prelapsarian Britain of a milder and less heroic age. The architecture is grand and solid, the characters and the crowds well behaved, well dressed, and quite prosperous– with few signs of the Slump and only a few inklings of the aerial war to come. Berlin and Munich are also shown with more grandeur than grit.
Coming back now to the ambivalent power of film, will you be happy to use Munich–The Edge of War to introduce students to the topic? How can historians frame historical fiction like this to generate discussion in the classroom?
Allport: Teaching history through film offers students an interesting set of questions to consider. How important is it that the film sticks rigidly to historical fact, or is some artistic license permissible? Should we judge a fictional movie by the same standards as a history book? Are all omissions and deviations from the historical record equal, or do some matter more than others? In the case of Munich: The Edge of War it might be particularly useful to compare the characterization of Neville Chamberlain with that in 2017’s Darkest Hour. Both are quite different but neither is inherently the objectively ‘right’ one. Why have the filmmakers presented such different Chamberlains to the audience? Neither depiction would satisfy all historians. Is it even possible to put a Chamberlain on the screen that everyone could agree is ‘realistic’? And is that a useful historical or dramatic objective anyway?
Gottlieb: To conclude, all representations, fiction and nonfiction, reveal as much about the time they are produced in as about the historical period they seek to depict. Munich–The Edge of War is entertainment as well artifact in that sense, a film for our time!
Julie V. Gottlieb is Professor of Modern History at the University of Sheffield. She is the author of ‘Guilty Women’, Foreign Policy and Appeasement in Interwar Britain (2015), and co-editor and contributor to The Munich Crisis, Politics and the People (2021).
Alan Allport is a Professor of History at Syracuse University, New York. His most recent book is Britain at Bay: The Epic Story of the Second World War 1938-1941 (2020).
Cover image: Jeremy Irons as Neville Chamberlain, George MacKay as Hugh Legat, in Munich — The Edge of War, Netflix (2022)