The Munich Agreement, which would ultimately lead to Chamberlain’s legacy being tarnished forever for this act of “appeasement,” could be scuttled if Chamberlain were to be persuaded that the Sudetenland was only the first step of many in the Führer’s rapacious territorial ambitions. The film, for that reason, centers on a politically explosive memo, outlining Hitler’s global vision for “Lebensraum” or “living space.” Paul von Hartmann (Jannis Niewöhner), an underling in the German foreign ministry, gets hold of the document, and tries to deliver it to Chamberlain.
The character of Paul, though based loosely on Adam von Trott zu Solz, a person who was involved in a 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler, is entirely fictional. So is his English counterpart and liaison to Chamberlain: Hugh Legat (George MacKay), one of Chamberlain’s private secretaries and an old college chum of Paul, who studied with him at Oxford. “Munich” is Hugh and Paul’s small story, set against the backdrop of a much larger one that’s all-too-well known. (Ulrich Matthes makes for a nicely deranged and scary Hitler. And Sandra Hüller, so good in the Oscar-nominated “Toni Erdmann,” is delightful to see as Paul’s married girlfriend and co-conspirator.)
That’s not to say that there isn’t drama in the conspiracy plot, which is more personal than political. The question of how Paul, for instance, evolved from a rabid Nazi — shown in flashbacks to 1932 arguing with Hugh about German pride — to someone willing to risk his life to stop Hitler gives the film interest. Irons makes for a watchable and surprisingly sympathetic Chamberlain, but this is Niewöhner’s film, and his character’s transformation is compelling. So is the reason for it, which involves an old girlfriend (Liv Lisa Fries). MacKay, for his part, is a bit too buttoned up to garner much of our interest. This is more the result of his character — subdued, dutiful, distant — than his performance, which is solid as always.
Handsome, well-acted and intelligently conceived, “Munich” is nevertheless hampered by the forgone conclusions of its historical backdrop. One of Hitler’s bodyguards (August Diehl), who happens to be a childhood friend of Paul’s — yet still tenaciously suspicious of him — lends the proceedings some suspense. It’s not because the fate of the world hangs in the balance, but because the fate of Paul and Hugh does.
Directing from a screenplay by Ben Power, who has adapted Robert Harris’s 2018 novel for the screen, German filmmaker Christian Schwochow makes you understand the stakes that are at play in this complicated game of geopolitical chicken. He just hasn’t figured out how to make you feel them.
PG-13. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema; available Jan. 21 on Netflix. Contains some strong language, mature thematic elements, smoking and brief violence. 131 minutes.