“ONEThe present of a country, “says Robert Harris,” is shaped by its interpretation of its past. “Harris, whose bestselling novel from WWII Munich is now coming to the big screen with the kind permission of Netflix, adds:” We have a very strong image of this island, which stands alone, weak, defenseless – contracted again through an exertion of will. Well, none of that is really true. “
The great stories Britain creates from its history require heroes, but also cowards, failures and villains. How else can we be sure that our heroes were truly heroic if we didn’t have comparable characters who missed out? Such was the fate of pre-war Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, remembered for his policies of appeasing and containing Hitler. Munich: The Edge of War is a brave attempt to change history. But can this fictionalized film change the public perception of history?
“Chamberlain is a tragic hero to me,” says Harris. “It fails, but there is something noble about the attempt – not degenerate, as it is usually written.” Harris thought about getting the book on screen before he had even finished writing it – also because he was convinced that it would his friend Jeremy Irons was to play Chamberlain. The two discussed it in 2016, a year before the book came out.
Now Harris turns to Irons in a London hotel, who sits next to him and smokes lazily. “You are of the right age,” says the author, “with a certain eagle look and an imposing physical presence. He was the prime minister, the dominant political figure, so it needed someone of that kind of stature. “
Irons replies: “I only knew him because history sent him down to us as a pacifier, the man who was deceived by Hitler.” Playing Chamberlain changed his mind. “I got the mindset of a man who had only seen a war 20 years ago that killed many of his colleagues and friends. A terrible war. I was very excited to be part of what I believe to be a real reassessment of this historical figure – a great man. “
In September 1938 Hitler wanted to invade Czechoslovakia and annex the Sudetenland. Chamberlain flew to Germany three times to convince the Fiihrer of the war. His third visit was to the Munich Conference, the subject of this film. On the screen, the negotiations turn into a suspenseful thriller driven by a fictional plot: a German official tries to convince a Chamberlain employee, a former friend, that the British must stop Hitler. “I toyed with whether there was a way to write the novel with Chamberlain as the main character,” says Harris. “But I think that would be a pretty tough question.”
The film instead focuses on the younger cast who must have a sexier story. Paul von Hartmann (played by Jannis Niewöhner) is the German civil servant who befriended Hugh Legat (George MacKay) at Oxford University in the early 1930s.
Politically, the two do not agree – Hartmann initially supported Hitler – but the spark between them is great. There’s a subplot about their rivalry over a woman, but the film doesn’t add much depth to any of the female characters – the far more interesting sexual energy lies between the two men. As the Legate accompanies Chamberlain to Munich, Hartmann is determined to give him secret documents that prove Hitler’s plans to conquer Europe. If Chamberlain doesn’t want to stop Hitler, Hartmann wants – whatever it takes.
Although Hartmann and Legat are fictional, Harris confirms that they are in part inspired by diplomat Adam von Trott zu Solz and scholar AL Rowse. The latter, who was gay, wrote about his intense platonic bond with Trott in Oxford. Trott, although a much less amiable character than the fictional Hartmann, joined in 1944 Claus von Stauffenberg’s plot to assassinate Hitler. It failed and Trott was executed.
“The filmmakers saw the advance in the attempt by the youngsters,” says Irons, “but I said we had to take care of the political situation. While the script was being developed, I kept fighting Chamberlain’s corner. I said, ‘You need to know where these negotiating people are from.’ We can’t just be wallpaper. “Harris agrees,” You’ve been instrumental in all of this, much more so than any actor in any movie I’ve been in. “
One of the scenes Irons fought for takes place in the garden at 10 Downing Street. Chamberlain is with his wife and Legate joins them. The Prime Minister speaks movingly of World War I and its responsibility to help the nation avoid further trauma. “He believed the country would have a spiritual crisis if people didn’t see their leaders doing everything they can to avoid another war,” says Harris. “It’s a very interesting line and one that he actually said.”
“You could say,” adds Irons, “that the country is in a spiritual crisis right now because our leaders don’t seem to be preoccupied with the things that matter to us: national health, global warming, the balance between the rich and the poor. We are experiencing a moment when we don’t trust our politicians – and it is very important to portray a politician who is honest and honest and who has real problems and tries to deal with them. “
Munich has a German director, Christian Schwochow, who directed episodes of The Crown. Everyone in the cast and crew seems delighted with the opportunity to create an Anglo-German version of that moment in history that led both nations to war. “During the first reading,” says Jannis Niewöhner, who plays Hartmann, “we sat with all the English actors and the German actors and you could see the difference in the cultures in the way they speak their lines. You could feel that this was going to be a great film. “
Chamberlain and Hitler both signed the Munich Agreement, which allowed Germany to annex the Sudetenland. That was the reassurance: giving Hitler what he wanted in the hope that it would satisfy him. But in an intriguing twist – which played an important role in the film – Chamberlain persuaded Hitler the next morning to sign a separate declaration promising Britain and Germany never to go to war again. This was the famous slip of paper that Chamberlain triumphantly waved on his return, claiming it had secured “peace for our time.”
Hitler was not appeased and invaded Poland eleven months later, sparking World War II. Munich argues that Chamberlain’s war avoidance in 1938 was a boon to the Allies and gave Britain time to rearm. Until then, Harris says, “We had the strongest navy in the world. We had an integrated air force, left behind by the hated Chamberlain – who spent 50% of the government’s tax revenue on armament. “
Among those who profited from Chamberlain’s defamation was his rival Winston Churchill. He doesn’t appear in Munich, but in a way the whole film is an answer to his version of the story. “I don’t want to denigrate Churchill in any way,” says Harris. “He was clearly a brilliant war leader and an inspiring person. But he certainly went out to vilify Chamberlain, and his memoirs are a great counterfactual indeed. “If only that, if only that – then Hitler could have been stopped.” None of this seems to really address the things Chamberlain was involved with. And if we had followed Churchill’s advice, the army would have bought a lot of biplanes. “
Churchill’s portrait of Chamberlain in his memoir, The Gathering Storm, isn’t entirely negative: he emphasizes that Chamberlain was capable and powerful. Overall, however, he describes him as “to a large extent opinionated and self-confident”. The scornful smile can be heard in a few lines from Churchill: “Mr. Chamberlain continued to believe that he only had to establish personal contact with the dictators in order to bring about a clear improvement in the world situation.”
Chamberlain died six months after leaving office in 1940. When The Gathering Storm was first published in 1948, no one had much interest in defending the man who had tried to make peace with Hitler. “Chamberlain,” says Harris, “was a very convenient scapegoat for both the Conservative Party and the Labor Party, which had opposed any rearmament measures he reinstated.”
Munich is an ambitious film that not only aims to inspire, but also to change British – and possibly German – views of its national history. “It has a slightly polemical intention,” says Harris, “because I argue against an 80-year tidal wave of the other view.”
However, as many have noted in the past, questioning national history can be dangerous. Is Harris concerned about the reaction? His eyes sparkle. “All my life, even as a schoolboy, I’ve loved to cause trouble and mix things up. I couldn’t be happier. “