Sean Ellis (2016)
Reinhard Heydrich was one of the worst excuses for a human being ever to soil the long chronicle of European history. If you haven’t heard of him before, you probably should have, if only to provide you with a cautionary tale of the kind of evil that narcissistic, ambitious men hungry for power, wealth and notoriety are capable of. Known as the “butcher of Prague,” Heydrich murdered thousands of Czech citizens to quell resistance to Nazi occupation, and was considered the chief architect of the “final solution” to the “Jewish problem” in Nazi-occupied Europe: the Holocaust. A film like Sean Ellis’s new effort, Anthropoid, is a step in bringing that story to a new generation that may have forgotten it if they ever knew it.
What makes Heydrich’s life so interesting is the way it ended. At the height of the war, a team of Czech and Slovak resistance fighters were parachuted into Czechoslovakia, sent by the Czech government in exile in London to complete Operation Anthropoid—the objective of which was the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich. Led by Jan Kubiš (played in the film by Jamie Dornan of Fifty Shades of Grey) and Jozef Gabčík (played by Cillian Murphy from such films as The Dark Knight), the group successfully assassinates the most heavily guarded man in Prague, before being cornered and slaughtered in the Orthodox Church where they were being hidden. I’m sorry if this seems like I’m spoiling the plot, but it’s history that you should already know. Heydrich was the highest ranking Nazi (only Hitler and Himmler were his superiors) to have been assassinated during the war.
Having been to the Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius and put my fingers in the bullet holes in the walls of the church, I felt strongly that this was a tale worth the telling. And it is certainly a film worth the watching, even though it has, with some justification, been criticized for being slow-moving and being overly focused on a romantic subplot that involves Kubiš, Gabčík, and a pair of Czech women who sympathize with the resistance and serve as “beards” for the two newcomers to the city who are “looking for work” as they study Heydrich’s movements, planning the assassination. I had no problem with the romance: we need to see another side to Kubiš and Gabčík, we need to see them as human, and since nobody in the film appears to have any sense of humor at all, something is needed to relieve the overwhelming sense of gloom. And we need to see the human cost of the assassination. I do have to agree somewhat with the pace of the film: Much of it drags, and it seems to me that this could have been alleviated if we ever actually got to see Heydrich himself in action. As it is, he is nothing but a target seen from far off. We hear about his having executed rebels to put down the resistance, but we never see his atrocities or are allowed to form any opinion of him for ourselves, to make us understand why he must be eliminated. In other words, the film itself doesn’t give us any real reason to sympathize with the assassins.
In the wake of Heydrich’s death, the Germans descended on the small town of Lidice and, responding to unsubstantiated rumors that the village had sheltered the assassins, proceeded to kill every man in the village, send every woman and child to concentration camps, and raze every building to the ground. That atrocity is never depicted on screen—it is only alluded to when reported to Kubiš and Gabčík as they wait restlessly in their sanctuary in the Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius. That, too, is a mistake. Though we are shown the tragic ending of the romance, as well as the brutal torture of a poor boy whose family helped shelter the assassins, these are personal losses, and we are spared any depiction of the widespread human cost of Heydrich’s death. We are prevented from dealing with the question of whether the goal was worth the ultimate cost by being told rather than shown the full blunt force of Nazi retaliation.
One last knock I’ve heard against the film: the actors don’t really sound authentically Czech. In many ways this is the silliest complaint. The real problem here is not the quality of their accents. It’s the fact that they are speaking with accents. Think about it. The Germans in the film speak German. The Czechs are speaking English. Are we supposed to think that they were actually speaking English at the tine depicted in this film? Of course not. We are supposed to suspend our disbelief and understand that they were speaking Czech but for purposes of the audience’s understanding, they are shown as speaking English. So if the English is supposed to be Czech, why would they be speaking in accents? If they are supposed to be speaking their own language, why would they be speaking it with a foreign accent?
So yes, clearly the film has some flaws. But it has some remarkable moments as well. The plot follows the two assassins fairly meticulously from their parachuting into Czechoslovakia, through a series of scenes where they do not know whom to trust and who might be agents of the Nazis. When they meet with what is left of the local resistance fighters in Prague, they are for the most part appalled by the assassins’ mission. Ladislav (Marcin Dorocinski), head of the local group, fears that Nazi retaliation will destroy Prague. But his deputy “Uncle’ Hajsky (the impressive Toby Jones in his second memorable performance of the summer, after The Man Who Knew Infinity) convinces the group to cooperate and assist Kubiš and Gabčík. Hajsky finds them a family to live with and they find themselves two charming Czech women to allay suspicions as they begin to form their plans to assassinate Heydrich. Up to this point the film is a bit, well, plodding is a word that comes to mind.
But the film justifies its existence in its last forty-five minutes or so. The scene of the actual assassination is almost unbearably suspenseful. The scene of the torture of the teenaged son of the family that harbored the assassins is gruesome and horrifying. But the climax, the shootout at the church, in which the six saboteurs hold off what seems like a whole battalion of German soldiers for half an hour before they are snuffed out, is a vividly realized, heroic last stand, that does finally leave us with an appreciation of the courage of these Czech patriots in defense of their freedom against an enemy to whom, as the film makes clear, their country was delivered by the Munich accord of 1938 that Neville Chamberlain had notoriously claimed would secure “peace in our time.” In the ending notes, the filmmakers note that as a result of the Nazi atrocities that followed upon the assassination of Heydrich, Winston Churchill pronounced the Munich accord null and void, and Britain recognized the Czech government in exile as legitimate in the same way it recognized the French. This ultimately was the fruit of the Heydrich assassination, the film suggests. This may in fact be why we are not shown the Lidice atrocity. It doesn’t, however, explain why we aren’t shown more of Heydrich himself.
Still, this story is important enough, and the last half hour riveting enough, that I think you would do well to see it. So I’m still going to give this film three Tennysons. Go see it.