Director: Christian Schwochow (UK, USA). Year of Release: 2022
Oxford, 1932. Three language students are at one of those parties by the Isis where bottles of champagne come for free and everyone around you is completely insufferable. Two of them – Paul and Lenya – are Germans. Hugh is a stuffy Englishman. Paul is a patriot who is excited about the coming régime and insists that you can’t reduce Nazism to antisemitism. Paul and Lenya are an item, though it looks like Hugh would love to get it on with at least one of them.
Fast forward 6 years. As befits Oxford graduates, Hugh and Paul have got plushy jobs. Hugh is the private secretary to prime minister Neville Chamberlain, Paul has some sort of job in the German foreign office. He is still a patriot, but he’s less keen on Hitler, and has joined some disillusioned army officers in the underground. Lenya, as befits a woman in a film that is dominated by men, has vanished from the scene and will only appear again viewed from afar.
Hitler has threatened to invade the Sudetenland and Chamberlain is due to meet him in Munich. Chamberlain is to offer a treaty which he thinks prevent further wars. But Paul has a plan. If Chamberlain doesn’t sign and Hitler uses military force, then some of the officers will stage a mutiny. Paul is even more motivated when he gets his hands on a document proving that Hitler has no intention of stopping here. He arranges that Hugh is included as part of Chamberlain’s party.
München – im Angesicht des Krieges is superbly acted but suffers from some problems. For a start, it is nominally a thriller, but it’s difficult to raise suspense about things where we already know the outcome. Will Hitler stop at invading Sudetenland or go further? Will Paul succeed in shooting Hitler? I don’t think it’s a plot spoiler to say that we already know the answers.
Secondly, I’m just not convinced by the Maguffin. Most of the plot hinges on the minutes that Paul has found of a secret meeting in which Hitler declares his aim for further expansion in the East to gain Lebensraum. We occasionally get a glimpse of this document, and it seems to be just a few pages of typing. The idea that anyone would be convinced that this was genuine and no forgery does stretch our credulity.
Thirdly, it’s not very clear what the film is trying to say. Here my personal disappointment may be clouding things. It’s only a few months since I saw Je suis Karl – the last film made by director Christian Schochow, starring Jannis Niewöhner, who plays Paul. It is a superb film, not just because of Niewöhner’s incredible acting, but because it had a clear message against fascism and against the normalisation of the Identitarian movement.
And what is the message of München? Well, if you’re to believe the end credits, it’s that Chamberlain was right. That although historians have portrayed him as a bumbling idiot, it was, in fact, his delaying strategy in Munich that won the war and defeated Hitler (yes, the message printed at the end does go that far). Well, maybe.
Now, I neither want to be an apologist for the warmongering bigot Churchill, nor do I want to overlook the astute way in which Chamberlain is portrayed in this film. He is shown as someone who witnessed the First World War (although he was too old to fight, he says this made things even worse, made him feel more impotent). This background makes his reluctance to provoke a war with Germany much more understandable.
I think the problem lies somewhere else. This film has been sold as one which shows the lead-up to war as experienced by the people below, not the politicians. But who are these people below? They are, by and large, people who attended Britain’s most exclusive Universities. Paul’s surname is von Hartmann – that “von” is important, as it shows that he’s part of the nobility. Ultimately, we are asked to choose which set of poshoes we’d support against which others.
But perhaps I’m being too harsh. On top of Jeremy Irons’s nuanced performances as Chamberlain, there were all sorts of delightful snippets. It was great how the German director poked fun at the buttoned up British toffs. There was a brief – way too brief – glimpse of the violent implications of Nazism. And many of the scenes in Berlin and Munich did give an unsettling sense of what it’s like to live in a totalitarian state.
But when the film started to get good, it suddenly swung back to the rather pedestrian plot. It would have been great to know more about what happened to Lenya, or indeed to hear more from the other female characters, like Hugh’s dissatisfied wife or Paul’s older girlfriend, played by the always wonderful Sandra Hüller. It would be great to know more about how and why Paul moved into the opposition. That would be a different film, of course. But it would be a better film.