Violence is an important element of the spy thriller, and it could be argued that it is the most important. Indeed, the adventures of James Bond, Jason Bourne or Jack Bauer would be bland if those adventurers weren’t in constant danger of being killed on a mission. Even quieter, more cerebral espionage stories along the lines of John le Carré raise the stakes and keep things alive by killing occasional cops, double agents or innocent bystanders.
But bestselling author Robert Harris, in his 2018 historical thriller, Munich, decided to take a different path. The book certainly contains familiar ingredients – including stolen documents and a murder plot – but it, and its new film adaptation, Munich – The Edge of the War, which premieres on Netflix on January 21, contain very little violence indeed. That is, if you ignore the violence they inflict on history – at least when it comes to one prominent participant.
That’s not to say Harris hasn’t done his research. Given the setting, he had to or he would face the wrath of countless aficionados of WWII documentaries on the History Channel. The background to the story is the infamous Munich Conference of 1938, at which the leaders of Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy and France – Adolf Hitler, Neville Chamberlain, Benito Mussolini and Édouard Deladier respectively – signed an agreement allowing Germany to annex border areas in Czechoslovakia, known as the Sudetenland. The pact went down in history as an act of reconciliation that paved the way for further Nazi expansion in Eastern Europe, despite Hitler’s empty promises of peace. Shortly after it was signed, Chamberlain memorably declared that “a British Prime Minister has returned from Germany who brings peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time.” The United Kingdom would of course go to war with Germany anyway, less than a year later. Chamberlain’s reputation as a crushingly naive leader who bowed to a monstrously evil man lasts to this day.
Harris’s novel, however, offers a different take on Chamberlain, but his novel takes some time to reach that dubious conclusion. Along the way, a curiously inert tale is told of two fictional characters: the Englishman Hugh Legat, one of Chamberlain’s private secretaries, and the German Paul von Hartmann, a member of his country’s diplomatic corps. The two went to Oxford together, where they were friends, although they argued over Hartmann’s sympathy for German nationalism. Hartmann changed his mind about the Nazis when they hurt someone he really cared about, so now he’s part of a conspiracy to arrest and possibly kill Hitler. When officials meet in Munich, Legat and Hartmann both want to avert reconciliation for different reasons — and a stolen document, containing minutes of a secret Nazi meeting, could hold the key to making that happen.
Or could it be? This is not an alternate history novel along the lines of Harris’s 1992 bestseller, Native countrySet in a world where Germany won World War II. Munich is a straightforward story that follows real life events, so readers know from the start that the reconciliation will happen, the coup attempt by the German conspirators will fail and the stolen document will have little to no effect on anything . This basically takes all the tension out of the story unless one cares about the fate of the fictional characters – which is very hard to do. Legat is an ambitious civil servant but has few other personality traits, and Hartmann, despite his anti-Hitler leanings, is still a Nazi, even though he feels bad about the fate of someone in his past. (That character is so underdeveloped that it barely exists, as are the few other women in this story, including Legat’s wife and a government typist.)
Harris seems more interested in his real characters, and to that end he imagines several scenes where Legat or Hartmann have direct contact with Hitler or Chamberlain. Harris’ portrayal of Hitler as arrogant and suspicious isn’t exactly revealing, though, and Chamberlain comes across as little more than a well-meaning bureaucrat until the very end, when the novel strongly suggests that the Prime Minister was playing a long game – appeasing Hitler to simply buy time. so that British troops could adequately prepare for an inevitable war. It also makes Chamberlain note that Hitler’s inevitable betrayal will lead to the United States going to war – again, implying that this was part of the British leader’s plan all along. It seems like a chore to give Chamberlain that much credit; it has even gotten to the point where readers may wonder whether this book is alternative history after all.
The film version, directed by German director Christian Schwochow and adapted by British playwright Ben Power, stays very close to the events of the book, resulting in a slow, predictable slog. (A single, unobtrusive fistfight is added to the procedure, without much effect.) 1917George MacKay, as Legat, spends much of the movie haggard and concerned, but he has little to work with in a movie with a foregone conclusion. Jannis Niewöhner as Hartmann exudes stark urgency, but few other emotions, while Ulrich Matthes as Hitler is appropriately reptilian but unobtrusive. Downton AbbeyJessica Brown Findlay is completely wasted in a barely there role as Legat’s wife, Pamela, while Babylon BerlinLiv Lisa Fries does her best with a vaguely sketched character – a character that only exists to fuel Hartmann’s fear. Oscar winner Jeremy Irons manages to give his version of Chamberlain a surprising warmth, though, and his performance almost makes the film worth watching — if one can ignore how the story improbably turns the prime minister into a foreign policy chess master. .
David Rapp is the senior Indie editor†