February 2021

Anthropoid (2016)

anthroDIRECTOR: Sean Ellis

CAST: Cillian Murphy, Jamie Dornan, Charlotte Le Bon, Toby Jones



Anthropoid is a spare, gritty historical thriller chronicling in unvarnished fashion the true story of the operation (code-named “Anthropoid”) to assassinate high-ranking Nazi Reinhard Heydrich.  To that end, it’s not necessarily the definitive film adaptation of the event (1975’s Operation Daybreak provides a more comprehensive overview), but it’s a tense and unromanticized docudrama illuminating one of the less famous stories from WWII.  

1942: Czech agents Jan Kubis (Jamie Dornan) and Josef Gabcik (Cillian Murphy), serving with the Czech government-in-exile in London, are parachuted back into their homeland on a top-secret and perilous mission to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, the head of the SS and Gestapo in Czechoslovakia, subordinate only to Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler in the Nazi hierarchy, and tasked with wiping out the last remnants of the Czech resistance, an assignment at which he has nearly been successful.  After a treacherous journey from the countryside into the capital city of Prague, they find shelter with resistance agents and set their mission in motion.  Along the way, Kubis falls for a local girl and resistance collaborator, Maria (Charlotte Le Bon), but any fledgling attempt at romance might be doomed to a short life expectancy, along with all of the characters involved.

Character development is not the movie’s strong suit.  We get a basic sense of the two main characters’ personalities—Gabcik is all-business and laser-focused, accepting unflinchingly that this might well be a suicide mission, while Kubis is a little less prepared to die, a little more hopeful, enough to form a tentative romance with Maria which Gabcik views as a frivolous distraction—but the movie’s concern is more with the “how” than the “who”, which keeps the characters at something of a detached distance.  We understand what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, but we don’t really “feel” it with them on an emotional level.  In particular, the romance between Kubis and Maria is sketched out fleetingly—even more half-baked are the romantic undertones between Gabcik and Maria’s friend Lenka (Anna Geislerová)—and supporting characters are hard to keep straight (the Czech names, which many American viewers will find nearly incomprehensible, don’t help in this regard).  A little more focus on the characters might have made Anthropoid a less cold and remote and more powerful viewing experience.

On the other hand, director Sean Ellis does a good job navigating the treacherous waters of Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, where it’s hard to know who’s a loyal resistance agent or a Nazi informant.  Nazi-occupied Prague is a grim, oppressive place, pinned under the Nazi jackboot, accentuated by the film’s desaturated color tones.  Like Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie, chronicling the July 1944 assassination attempt on Hitler himself by renegade Germans, Anthropoid details in documentary-level detail the planning, brainstorming, setbacks, and abortive attempts leading up to the main event.  There are intriguing tidbits, such as Gabcik pretending to take photographs of a girlfriend as cover for actually taking reconnaissance pictures of Heydrich’s headquarters and daily routine, or the clever (albeit ultimately futile) scheme to smuggle the assassins to safety hidden inside a hearse.  The movie’s pace is slow-burn, but gradually and inexorably dials up the tension as the inevitable climax draws nearer.

The movie also touches on the infighting among factions of the Czech resistance, between the zealously patriotic Kubis and Gabcik, who are determined to fulfill their mission regardless of the consequences, and those who don’t see the death of Heydrich as being worth the terrible reprisals the Nazis will visit upon Czechoslovakia in revenge (in the wake of Heydrich’s death, the Nazis made an example of the village of Lidice, razing it to the ground, summarily executing 173 citizens, and shipping the rest to concentration camps).

The filmmakers obviously made a serious effort for historical accuracy and verisimilitude.  The film was shot entirely on location in Prague (where many buildings remain unchanged since WWII).  Scenes in the Orthodox Cathedral of Saints Cyril and Methodius were filmed in an exact replica.  The climactic battle and siege is reenacted with meticulous accuracy to firsthand accounts from both Czech citizens and the Gestapo.  The assassination plays out in real time.

Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan (putting a more respectable entry on his filmography than 50 Shades of Gray) are recognizable faces, at least to some audience members, but not really “big names”, and their performances are low-key and non-flashy, all of which makes it easier to see them simply as Gabcik and Kubis.  The rest of the faces on hand are even lower-profile and perhaps apart from character actor Toby Jones (as a prominent member of the resistance), they won’t be familiar to most viewers.  Apart from Jones and Charlotte Le Bon (last seen as Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s girlfriend in The Walk), the supporting cast is made up mostly of native Czech actors.  Anna Geislerová (as Maria’s best friend and fellow resistance collaborator who demonstrates to the doubting parachutists that she knows her way around a gun) and Marcin Dorociński (as a conflicted member of the resistance who opposes the mission out of fear of what it will mean for his country) make impressions.  The little-seen target Heydrich remains offscreen for the most part, appearing as himself in archive footage and then fleetingly represented by German actor Detlef Bothe, who only appears briefly during the assassination sequence and was obviously chosen for his physical resemblance.

Incidentally, Anthropoid makes an interesting companion piece to the 1975 film Operation Daybreak, starring Timothy Bottoms and Anthony Andrews and chronicling the same events in the same unvarnished docudrama fashion (perhaps inevitably, the two movies have various scenes that are virtually interchangeable, although Operation Daybreak had a broader scope including a larger role for Heydrich himself, and the more modern Anthropoid unsurprisingly features more graphic violence).  Like Operation Daybreak, the assassination occurs halfway through, and the true climax is the aftermath, as the Gestapo hunts the resistance agents down with ruthless determination, culminating in the cornered assassins’ tenacious last stand in the cathedral leading to a lengthy battle sequence.  Anthropoid doesn’t beat around the bush about how cruel the Nazis could be, with the Gestapo’s brutal torture of a teenage boy (Bill Milner) being uncomfortable to watch.

Anthropoid might tell of a victory in a sense, but there’s an air of grim futility that hangs over everything.  Operation Anthropoid dealt the Third Reich a daring blow of defiance (Heydrich was the only major member of the Nazi hierarchy to be successfully assassinated during the war), but at terrible cost.  The “villain” may receive his comeuppance, but there is no happy ending for our heroes or for many innocents affected directly or indirectly by their actions.  The climactic battle is not a rousing victory, but a defiant last stand, the Czech resistance’s version of the Alamo.  It could be considered a “spy thriller”, but of a more grimly down-to-earth, unglamorous, and unromanticized variety.  Needless to say, it’s the kind of movie that will appeal more to WWII buffs than mainstream audiences, but for those who consider themselves part of that niche, it’s worth a look.

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