women in historical films are too often unrealistic
In September 1938, Britain, Germany, Italy and France met in Munich as a new European war loomed. Hitler demanded to annex the Sudetenland in western Czechoslovakia. In an effort to avoid war, the Four Power Agreement was signed and Czechoslovakia would abandon its border regions and defenses. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain got Hitler to sign a separate Anglo-German agreement and triumphantly called it “peace for our times”. Known as the Munich crisis, this event was the culmination of appeasement.
A new film, Munich – The Edge of War, is not a dramatization of this pivotal event but a “what if” work of historical fiction, based on Robert Harris’ 2017 political thriller of the same name. The fictional male protagonists Hugh Legat and Paul von Hartmann are loosely based on Britain’s AL Rowse and Germany’s Adam von Trott, a healthy dose of poetic license taken in regard to their respective political ideas, foresight and proximity to the center of diplomatic events. The suspense of the story depends on their ability to change the course of events.
The film aims to be relatable by subtly framing the strategic and ethical dilemmas faced by peacemakers and would-be anti-Nazi resisters in a way that will resonate with audiences in our time of crisis and growing extremism. Indeed, in the current news, Russia is massing troops on Ukraine’s border to prevent it from joining NATO, and some commentators compare this to the Munich crisis of 1938.
The portrayal of Neville Chamberlain is nostalgic, very sympathetic and (perhaps also) seductive. Jeremy Irons’ Chamberlain is the savior of peace, the epitome of respectability, good manners and tradition – a striking foil to the current resident of 10 Downing Street, a Prime Minister who uses the same austere spaces to, we know now, much less serious company.
The vast majority of ruminations on the film’s historical plausibility will focus on the characterization of the main big or guilty men. However, who are the “what if” women in the film? Are they plausible representations of Munich’s crisis women?
Munich – The Edge of War features strong, intelligent, and knowledgeable female characters whose actions have a direct bearing on events. The historical fiction genre offers an attempt to right the wrongs of the very real male exclusivity and unexamined sexism of interwar diplomacy.
There are four key but still supporting female characters, serving important symbolic, romantic and dramatic functions.
There is Lenya, the German-Jewish friend of Hugh Legat and Paul von Hartman. Pamela Legat is the protagonist’s wife, standing in for British mothers facing the terrifying prospect of air war, making harrowing decisions about evacuating children, and gazing at this new world through the dehumanizing visor of newly acquired gas masks. .
Third, the film takes one of Chamberlain’s typists on a flight of fantasy, so to speak. She is named after Joan Menzies. Although female typists accompanied Chamberlain on planes to the Munich conference, as far as we know, none performed overt or covert functions in the negotiations.
Fourth, on the German side, there is Helen Winter, a general’s widow, occupying a kind of administrative ministerial position, and both in love with and co-conspirator of von Hartmann – the pretty face of German anti-Nazism.
These symbolic women are all “big” women rather than guilty women, with varying qualities of courage, heroism, pathos, insight and intuition, not to mention sexiness. These are all variations of the mythical Greek priestess Cassandra – cursed to utter true prophecies, but never to believe in the consequences of naive deeds done by men.
To avoid revealing the plot, I will not give more details. But in terms of historical record, some spoilers are in order. Indeed, the main problem with the screenplay devices and the dramatic functions assigned to these female characters is that women have simply not had this kind of access to power, certainly not in an official capacity.
To say that women could not have acted in the events as they do in the film is not to say that women were absent from history, even at the level of high politics and diplomacy. I suspect that elements of Sheila Grant Duff’s life story were exploited for composite heroines.
Grant Duff and von Trott developed a close friendship at Oxford University in the early 1930s. They argued over politics when he became a supporter of the Nazi regime, and as a woman she opened the way as a foreign correspondent and Czechoslovakia expert and lawyer. His bestselling Penguin Special Europe and the Czechs (1938) was published just days after the signing of the Munich Agreement.
Moreover, a handful of female MPs, among the already small group of women who were MPs in the late 1930s, were formidable critics of appeasement. Among them were Independent Eleanor Rathbone, Labor’s Ellen Wilkinson and Chamberlain, the scourge of the Conservative Duchess of Atholl, who made sure all British MPs received Hitler’s uncensored translation. Mein Kampf. Other female MPs have led Chamberlain’s fanbase from the front, including Tory MPs Nancy Astor, Florence Horsbrugh and Marjorie Graves. Also, as a collective, the “millions of mothers” of Europe were understood as the enthusiastic supporters of Chamberlain, the savior of peace.
Munich – The Edge of War, a brooding and atmospheric fictionalization of the Munich crisis, does a commendable job of putting women in the drama and inviting audiences to take a gender-neutral view of the event. But it is also a welcome invitation to look closer and more carefully at the historical record and to recognize the opportunities as well as the significant constraints that real women faced in the 1930s to play the kind of decisive roles created for them in this film.