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As history later demonstrated, it was one of the worst appeasement acts: the 1938 Munich Agreement, signed by heads of government Neville Chamberlain, Adolf Hitler, Edouard Daladier and Benito Mussolini. That early attempt to stop Hitler's devastating expansionist policy is the focus of the new Netflix film "Munich: The Edge of War."
Even though viewers of the thriller already know that Chamberlain's attempts to avoid a war with Hitler will be unsuccessful, the film remains captivating thanks to clever dialogues, detailed set design and outstanding acting. Above all, it reflects on the power of any single individual amid a visibly insane political context; the actions of the protagonists bring forth questions on how far each of us would go in such circumstances.
The historical agreement allowed Hitler to take over the Czechoslovak Sudenten territories, inhabited by some three million ethnic Germans. The annexation, agreed upon by the four Western powers without even consulting the Czechoslovaks, was the prelude to the violent expansion of Nazi Germany. Hitler had been arming the Wehrmacht since 1933; his war machine was ready to go.
France and Britain's calculation was that if they let Hitler invade Czechoslovakia, they would have to defend the allied country. Hoping to prevent an international conflict, the Western powers therefore aimed to take the wind out of Hitler's sails with their policy of "appeasement."
Even though the Munich Agreement awarded Germany the territories it coveted, Hitler grudgingly signed the pact. He had actually been envisioning war, as he revealed in 1945 in a series of final statements — monologues known as the Bormann dictations: "From the military point of view, we were interested in starting it a year earlier. But I could do nothing, since the English and French in Munich accepted all my demands."
The film by German director Christian Schwochow (who also directed various episodes of the series "The Crown") therefore leads to the question: What would have happened if the Western powers at the time had not let Hitler get away with invading the Sudetenland — the beginning of a megalomaniac war of extermination that cost millions of lives?
This is exactly where "Munich: The Edge of War" begins. Set in historical context, the adaptation of a novel by Robert Harris tells the fictional story of two young men, Paul von Hartmann (Jannis Niewöhner) and Hugh Legat (Georg MacKay). The two meet as Oxford students in the 1930s. Years later, von Hartmann is a German diplomat who translates the foreign press for Hitler, while Legat, Chamberlain's private secretary, helps the British head of government write speeches.
Paul von Hartmann obtains a leaked document that proves a meticulously planned war of destruction. He wants to pass it on to the British in order to prevent the Munich Agreement and stop Hitler. At the conference, the two young men try to deliver the document and convince Chamberlain.
In the UK-Germany co-production,Jeremy Irons portrays Prime Minister Chamberlain and German actor Ulrich Matthes takes on the role of Hitler. Hitler's dialogues with Hartmann are intense: "I can read people," he says menacingly, and his eyes bore into the young translator. It is this quiet tension that makes "Munich: The Edge of War" a gripping historical drama.
"Munich – The Edge of War" opens in cinemas in the UK and the US on January 7 and will be available on Netflix beginning January 21.
This article was originally written in German.
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