On the precipice

George MacKay and Jannis Niewöhner on their brilliantly tense pre-war drama, Munich: The Edge of War
By Ella Joyce | Film+TV | 20 January 2022

Still, ‘Munich: Edge of War’, Christian Schwochow, 2022

We all know the world-altering fallout of what became the Second World War, but Christian Schwochow’s new political thriller Munich: The Edge of War takes us back to the notorious Munich Conference of 1938 – precursing the beginning of the war when Europe was on the brink of turmoil. Based on Robert Harris’ international bestselling novel Munich, the three-day conference convened by Adolf Hitler in an attempt to convince western powers to sacrifice the Czech Sudetenland is the backdrop for his conspiring protagonists to prevent the outbreak of war. Although history tells us the consequences of this event, suspense runs through the narrative with immediacy and ever-growing tension as Schwochow’s cinematic adaptation asks the inexhaustible question of “what if?”

George MacKay and Jannis Niewöhner take on the leading roles of British civil servant Hugh Legat and German diplomat Paul von Hartmann as the narrative’s perspective splits between them respectively. Beginning as university friends at Oxford in the 30s, ripples of divide seep into their relationship as opposing political opinions take control until their unsuspected meeting in Munich proves they are once again on the same side. Jeremy Irons stars as the controversial Neville Chamberlain in what becomes a rather sympathetic portrait of a man battling with the weight of a country’s decision, while Ulrich Matthes takes on a chillingly composed imagining of Hitler.

It’s not just a story of political strife but one of friendship, in the conversation below MacKay and Niewöhner discuss just that, along with the sociopolitical relevance of the plot in today’s climate and what it was like to watch Irons tackle Chamberlain.

Ella Joyce: First and foremost, the film was brilliant. Having debuted at the London Film Festival back in October, what was the initial reception like?
George MacKay: Thank you so much.
Jannis Niewöhner: It was so sad because neither of us could be there. But I got a message from Christian [Schwochow] that night and he was really overwhelmed by all the people being overwhelmed by the movie. He was really happy, but it was even sadder for me to hear that because I wasn’t there. [laughs]
GM: Likewise, I heard from Christian too and he was very pleased with how it went down – it sounded great.

EJ: Oh, amazing. As the film is adapted from Robert Harris’ novel, is there a different process for you as actors when a project is based on a work of literature or a historical period in terms of research or preparation?
GM: Yeah I guess there is. In Ben’s [Power] script there are definitely changes from Robert’s novel, so I read the novel just for the extra bits of context. Obviously, it’s a very different type of writing, so the details you get when you describe a character’s experience are so different, even experiencing a room. Things like the description of Downing Street, I found really helped build the world and the rooms that Hugh would have been working and living in. But in terms of research, and I’ve never had this on a project before, Kat who has worked with Christian often, put together this amazing website that was an ever-growing document. It had all these different departments with drawings and ideas from production design, massive amounts of historical info, you could follow links of every character to find information about them, about Neville Chamberlain’s policies alongside context for the era in the form of advertisements.
JN: It was like a book written for our process and the script. I also remember seeing a documentary which was colourised, and it was so interesting to see Berlin colourised in that era, it gave a really different feeling and I could connect in a different way to that period of time through it.

Still, ‘Munich: Edge of War’, Christian Schwochow, 2022

EJ: I read the book before it was made into a film also and I think it’s really interesting seeing these things come to life in a different way. Obviously, when something is adapted from a book there’s always going to be that comparison.
JN: You’re right, it’s always a really interesting reception when something is adapted like this but what’s so great about watching a movie is you always have to guess what the characters are thinking – whereas in the book you’re often told. That’s why it was helpful having the book, because there were some scenes where Robert Harris would describe what Paul was thinking, which wasn’t in the screenplay.

EJ: Hugh and Paul have a really dynamic relationship throughout the film, going from university friends to political opponents and eventually coconspirators. What was it that drew you both to them as characters and that relationship? 
JN: What’s interesting is that you meet those guys and you don’t know what their past is or what they’ve gone through, Paul has kind of a secret and there’s a secret both of them share but they’re not talking about it exactly. There’s so much going on that is not being spoken about but you can see it, and that was the task. I think they are former best friends but now they’ve really lost that connection, no they didn’t lose connection actually – there’s still something. But it’s so great to see them up until the end of the movie when you have these scenes where they both open up to each other, which is really beautiful.
GM: The thing that drew me to the character and project is that over the last few years there’s been so much happening in the world socially and politically that relates. So many things that we’re re-evaluating, so many things that demand change and we have to figure out how best to enact that change.

“I’ve not seen many projects deal with the impending unknown of the Second World War, as opposed to the fallout we all know to have happened.”

Still, ‘Munich: Edge of War’, Christian Schwochow, 2022

EJ: The Munich Agreement is a piece of history that often gets overlooked in the discourse of popular culture when it comes to reimagining that period of time in fiction and film. Now is a very apt time for its release, as socially things were on the brink of an unknown turmoil in 1938 and it feels like we’re in somewhat similar territory now. Obviously, this will contribute to the canon of work that surrounds that piece of history, but as World War II is such a highly coveted time period is there something that you need in a script to really grab your attention?
JN: Absolutely, I think what drew me to the story was that it’s about politics but you get to it through this friendship. On the political side, it’s how are you dealing with other countries whose political actions go against your own? How can you open up a conversation between two very different points of view and when should you draw a limit? That’s the same in politics as it is for friendship. That made sense for me as it’s always the characters that attract me to a story and it’s the story of friendship that made me understand the theme and the political aspects in the movie further.
GM: At the time of making the film, there were certain things like the Trump-Biden election that felt really relevant, you’re looking at something and going, “I don’t know what will happen if it goes a certain way, and I don’t know if I act for the future now or do I just remain present?” What is the right thing to do when you get the sense of an impending massive change, and what do you do about it? I’ve not seen many projects deal with the impending unknown of the Second World War, as opposed to the fallout we all know to have happened.

EJ: It’s that great question of hindsight. Jannis, you had a brilliantly tense scene when you were left alone with Hitler in the conference room, which I think deals with the age-old ethical question of ‘Would you kill Hitler if you had the chance?’ It’s really poignant seeing somebody come face-to-face with that realised on screen, what was it like for you filming that moment? 
JN: Absolutely, it was just that. It was so interesting because we had the script ready and sitting together with Christian, Ben and Sandra [Hüller], we were talking about that scene because Sandra’s character asks Paul “Why didn’t you do it?” and he says “Who gives me the right?” I think in the book it says something about how at that moment he understood that he thought he knew what was going to happen, but he doesn’t know, and this makes you unable to shoot the man. Also, it’s a very human thing not to shoot someone and maybe sometimes you seem to know what’s to be done to stop something, but if you’re in the situation it’s not that easy, that’s what it’s all about.

“What’s so great about watching a movie is you always have to guess what the characters are thinking.”

EJ: The film itself feels really authentic having a German-speaking cast and parts being shown in German with English subtitles, was that something that appealed to you?
JN: Oh absolutely. [laughs] For me it was the opportunity to learn more about the English language and its culture, and the differences between English and German. I remember very vividly sitting around the table for the big reading rehearsal, everyone was there and you could kind of sense the differences between the cultures and the way people would say their sentences. I thought it was great, I don’t know if I saw it much before, the differences between the two cultures, it was really an opportunity to discover that.

EJ: In terms of set and costume, did those aspects help you get into the mindset of that period and your characters?
GM: Definitely. We had these amazing costumes and the context was so bang on, but at the end of the day, people are people at every stage in history. With hindsight, or perspective, or romance, or with cynicism, you look back at people in a certain way or assume that they must’ve been a certain way. But people in day-to-day life have the same desires, wants and worries as you do now, it’s just the context is slightly different. I think the way it was shot with a handheld nature feels very present, it makes you feel like you see a room the way you see a room in real life – you’re chatting to your friend and then you’re looking over there – the camera does that with you. I felt it had real energy the way it was shot.

Still, ‘Munich: Edge of War’, Christian Schwochow, 2022

EJ: Jeremy Irons plays Neville Chamberlain, a figure well known as the great appeaser in a historical sense, but the film takes the standpoint that his decision was a great compromise that bided time. What was it like working with Jeremy and watching him take on that role as Chamberlain?
GM: I think he gives such an amazing performance in terms of, on one hand there’s a level of real accuracy to the tone of voice and the speech patterns, but then he also manages to imbue it with a spirit and flow of his own. You know sometimes if people do something very accurately, the spirit can get lost and it’s just about hitting the beats of this is how they talk. But Jeremy seemed to merge the two. That performance in the story was always the most important, but it was like you were there with Chamberlain and all the footage you’ve seen of him. What you said about the way Chamberlain is portrayed is very true, I don’t think I’ve seen it shown before how the compromise is quite heroic. The whole film is about where do you draw the line? Usually, with the heroic characters, their heroism is based on an absolute inability to compromise, and that is amazing and inspiring but Chamberlain has been knocked to the side a bit in history because he swallowed certain things, and he was imperfect – but aren’t we all? So it’s quite special how they’ve chosen to present the character in that way.
JN: And you don’t know him just as a politician, but also as someone struggling with his own decision, which shows how hard it is to make the right political choices. As Paul says in the film, “He’s doing a deal with a monster, why should you ever do it?” There are people who will say you should never do it, but then again artillery in England wasn’t very big so they had one year of preparing for the war. But, I love that little moment because that was my only scene with Jeremy, where I’m talking to him and I give him this document and he gives it back and says he can’t do anything about it. We go out and then he’s there like, “Ah, shit!” You see him struggling with what he’s doing.

EJ: Was there a standout scene for you both when shooting?
JN: We actually just talked about the scene we did in that Bavarian bar because we were talking about improvisation, and this was a scene where we thought, “Okay, it’s a conversation between best friends which turns into a fight, so it’s about people knowing each other really well, loaded with emotions. How much are they interrupting each other? How are they being affected by what the other says?” Those were the kind of questions we bought to the scene and then Christian and Ben encouraged us to bring our own arguments in so it would become as real and surprising as possible. That was so much fun, I mean, I was really scared of it but that’s always when it’s the most fun.
GM: I’m really proud of that scene because it feels like a lot of the conversations you have with your mates when you’re discussing the state of the world. It gets really passionate and it felt like something I knew.

“On the political side, it’s how are you dealing with other countries whose political actions go against your own, how can you open up a conversation between two very different points of view and when should you draw a limit– that’s the same in politics as it is for friendship.” 

EJ: You really know how to push each other’s buttons. I feel like the opening of the film becomes all the more poignant once you reach the end and see how their naivety as students at Oxford has slowly disappeared. How did it feel for you to watch the movie back and see your characters go through that?
GM: I love that opening scene, and again it’s credit to Christian and Ben, well Robert for writing the book in the first place, but Christian’s tone explores those passionate discussions. I remember speaking to Christian a lot saying, “I’ve had so many discussions where you talk about politics and about the world and friendships and what does it all mean?” It’s all kind of beautifully hypothetical because you know that you’re not going to be questioned on it – that conversation doesn’t ripple much further than the bar table most of the time. But what I like about the film is that it shows the weight of being part of those actual decisions and therefore the responsibility of the people we elect and the trust you put in them. The weight of dealing with decisions that influence masses of people is taxing, it should be taxing because it’s so serious and I think you get to know these people who have followed through on the discussions and that’s sort of beautiful and fantastic but the reality is that it’s tiring. Suddenly they are in a place where those same discussions have ramifications and they’ve got to be careful with that.

Still, ‘Munich: Edge of War’, Christian Schwochow, 2022

Munich: Edge of War is out in cinemas now and released on Netflix 21st January. 

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