Two friends try to prevent a Munich: on the edge of war, a thought-provoking Netflix period drama premiering at the BFI London Film Festival.
We first meet Hugh Legat (George MacKay) and Paul Hartman (Jannis Niewöhner) in 1932 when they are carefree students at Oxford University, drinking champagne and rolling on the lawn at a drunken party. Cut to London, six years later, and the mood is bleak: Adolf Hitler is preparing to invade Czechoslovakia and Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Jeremy Irons) is trying to find a peaceful solution. Hugh is now a civil servant and has the ear of the prime minister.
Meanwhile, Paul is a diplomat at home in Germany and obtains important documents that could help the British government. As the two prepare for a clandestine meeting in Munich during the emergency conference, the flashbacks show us more of their past and the tension mounts.
Based on the Robert Harris bestseller, Christian Schwochow’s film is gripping but not scathing, given the inevitable tragic denouement. Some characters and situations may be fictional, but this is not revisionist history in the broadest sense. And so, with the ending well known to history, the responsibility falls on the actors and the subjects to participate, which they do well.
MacKay is nice to everyone, while Niewöhner has a charismatic screen presence. Sandra Hüller (Toni Erdmann) portrays Hartman’s colleague and lover; pleasantly, all German roles are filled by German actors speaking their own language (with English subtitles), rather than heavily accented English. The casting of Hitler himself is notoriously complicated, and Ulrich Matthes, who played Joseph Goebbels in the 2004 film DropIt’s not an obvious fit, despite a suitably creepy performance.
The question: “Would you have killed Hitler if you had the chance?” It has prompted a lot of dinner drama and conversation, and is explored here, as well as the question of betraying your country for the greater good. Both Chamberlain and Hartman speak of a possible self-sacrifice, while Legat may be sacrificing something different for his country: his marriage. Jessica Brown Findlay adds drama as his wife, who is frustrated that her husband has to flee on their wedding anniversary, unable to explain the global importance of his secret mission.
With its themes and settings, this has undertones from Benedict Cumberbatch’s recent lead. The courier service, in which an ordinary Englishman was asked to become a spy. This will likely appeal to a similar market and should work well with mature audiences when it hits theaters and Netflix in January 2022.