A story that speaks for our time, or a tackless redemption story?
“Munich: The Edge of War” was released on Netflix and at selected cinemas at the end of January 2022. It stars George Mackay as Hugh Legat (a fictional English civil servant) and Jannis Niewöhner as Paul Hartmann (a German diplomat) with Jeremy Irons playing the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain.
The novel, published in 2017, centres around the 1938 Munich agreement signed on September 29th where German, Italian, French and British leaders gathered to negotiate Germany’s invasion of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia, thereby preventing war. Set out across three days, the novel begins with Hugh Legat sat in the Ritz with a newspaper. He ‘orders a bottle of 1921 Dom Perignon he could not afford’ in a room with ‘no laughter’ instantly portraying the tension in Britain at the time. It then moves from his personal life to his public one as a private secretary in downing street, setting up the private and personal, and public and duty worlds that are in conflict throughout. In the next chapter we are introduced to Paul Von Hartmann in the German Foreign Ministry. He is translating telegrams drafting replies in the ministers name in an ‘adjustment of style’ and ‘faux-outrage’.
The novel oscillates between the lives of these two characters as their respective leaders attempt to negotiate the Sudetenland and peace. It suggests why Chamberlain so desperately wanted peace and presents the British versus German attitudes to war and the political events at the time. Harris talks a lot about problems with translation in the novel and in understanding each others political viewpoints due to the different geopolitical experiences that they have had.
German director, Christian Schwochow, had chosen to approach the adaptation bilingually, casting German speakers in the German roles. This promises to make the world feel a lot more real and really emphasises the cultural differences between the different nationalities at the conference. Both Legat and Hartmann are written to be fluent in German and English positioning them as the intermediaries between the nations.
Robert Harris’s writing style is compelling and pared back. It’s to the point with little time for veering off the plot for description’s and lengthy inner monologues. It shifts between Legat’s and Hartmann’s lives, between the viewpoints of Britain and Germany. I particularly liked how Harris placed equal emphasis on presenting both sides of the build up to war, and providing readers with an insight (albeit fictionalised) of the people behind the scenes as well as the recognisable figures from history. Chamberlain is not often viewed in the most positive light in regard to WW2, with Winston Churchill taking the limelight for the victory, but this novel seeks to readdress his legacy. Peace through political negotiation can be as courageous to try and achieve as victory in war. Harris has shown interest in Neville’s attempt at peace before having made a BBC television Documentary called ‘God Bless You, Mr Chamberlain’ to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the conference in 1988.
Some people have criticised Harris’s attempt at redeeming ‘another Tory Flop’ (The Independent) citing the film as ‘the wrong story at the wrong time’ due to the ongoing Partygate scandal. Oliver Keens thinks that ‘it’s mainly a film about powerful yet inept people from privileged elites making a mess of things’. Yes, we know that peace did not prevail as Chamberlain waved the piece of paper promising ‘peace in our time’, but I think the epigraph speaks true of many moments in history – that we must remember ‘that what now lies in the past once lay in the future’. Today, we place our opinions on people retrospectively: we place a history on them that the people of the time didn’t know about as they had yet to come to pass. Chamberlain may have had an idea of Hitler’s plans, but peace and moral was what he strove to get – maybe he did believe Hitler would keep his word, maybe not. Maybe he knew that this agreement was a way to delay a war that many countries were not prepared for, and maybe not. We cannot take away the fact that it was conservative politicians that had been voted into power at the time and we cannot ignore these events because of that. If anything these stories humanising people of history are more important than ever in todays political landscape. With Putin invading Ukraine a story about Hitler invading Czechoslovakia feels as important and relevant as ever. Both leaders share a similar view about the narrative of their respective countries, and it it this repeated mindset that makes todays political landscape so frightening.
Harris is not blind to the privilege people had at any rank to get into politics; both Legat and Hartmann are Oxford scholars and this personal history is as important to the story as the negotiations around them. The elitism is a part of history that would have been incorrect to replace. It is not simply a ‘redemption’ story of a historical figure but a human story about peace and violence and what it is that motivates leaders. The film adaptation does press this elitist idea more, opening, 6 years before the munch agreement, with a boozy oxford party. This sets the story up with a different tone from the book. In the book there is more of a tension around the relationship between the two main characters whereas the movie instantly reveals it. Indeed much of the tension from the book is lost in the film due to the cutting of certain discussions which would have greatly increased the films length.
Mackay once again plays a man running to prevent catastrophe. There is a level of urgency here, like the tension in Sam Mendes’s award winning ‘1917′. They may not be running through the trenches but it’s as compelling seeing the tension play out before what we know happens and that tension is only increased by the inevitability, by the fact that we know the result. Reading the book, or watching the film, you know that World War Two is going to take place yet the narrative sparks a hope in the reader still that peace may still prevail. I think hope is one of the most important themes of Harris’s telling of this story: the hope that leaders can inspire and an attitude of not giving up even if the desired ends seem unlikely. In comparison the film presents hope and faith in others as more of a futile endeavour. ‘There’s always hope’ is met with ‘hoping is waiting for someone else to do it. We’d all be much better off without it’.
Jannis Niewöhner plays the passion of a believer in a better, changed Germany well especially in scenes of Hartmann and Legat’s political disagreements and when in a room with Hitler – that internal monologue of disgust and fear is palpable in his facial expressions. However I think they missed something leaving out Hitler’s jokes with his supporters at the dinner table and having Hartmann’s reaction to that. It was a real ‘makes you sick to the stomach’ moment that would have been interesting to see on screen.
It is a story that is centred around a British civil servant and German diplomats point of view and the characters around them are seen through that perspective. The main critiques I have of the novel is its treatment of women. Relationships with women, the appearance of Mrs Chamberlain and typists feature sporadically at a surface-level in the novel. Pamela, Legat’s wife, for example, is detached from the plot in the novel with no real background information. But then, actually, most of the characters are not fully fleshed out nor, I don’t think, were they meant to be. It seems as though Harris is mirroring a kind of stoicism, that British stiff upper lip, that characterises that era. Ishiguro’s ‘Remains of the Day’ similarly has an emotional detachment portrayed through the language thats used to express the viewpoints of his wartime Butler. It feels like a kind of ‘keep calm and carry on’ writing style where emotions aren’t particularly expressed. Pamela as played by Downton Abbey’s Jessica Brown Findley is given more of a voice and the hints at her having an affair are not present. The film really pushes Legat’s distant and less passionate attitude both from his wife and Hartmann making it a story that pushes for action over words. The book felt like it held this question up for more debate where the film heavily critiques Legat’s attitude in favour of Hartmann’s passion.
Overall, the book was incredibly engaging – it’s the first time in a while that I was kept up till 3am, unable to put the book down. The subject matter feels particularly relevant to our current political climate and also speaks to a humanity behind crises. Harris’s writing style isn’t one that I usually go for but I think suits the narrative that he portrays -however, it would be nice to have more war novels that might have more of an appeal to women too by fleshing out some of the characters and their choices a little bit more. The film adaptation felt like it had missed out on a few of the themes of the book in favour for easier watching and repetitive symbolism but was still an enjoyable watch with great casting and performances. Making it bilingual as well as Isabel Waller Bridges score also really suited and enhanced the story.