People die horribly on the long road to freedom
Resistance is hard and the consequences can be a nightmare.
On Dec. 8, 1941, nine men parachuted into Nazi occupied Czechoslovakia. They landed outside of Prague, made their way through the countryside into the city and met up with the Czech resistance.
Two of the operatives — Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš — were there to do one thing: kill notorious Nazi henchman Reinhard Heydrich. Even within the Third Reich, Heydrich was an extra special monster. As chairman of the Wannsee Conference he was one of the architects of the Holocaust. As overseer of Bohemia and Moravia, he sent thousands to their doom.
Anthropoid is a movie that tells the story of Gabčík, Kubiš and the other brave men and women of the Czech resistance who stood up to the Nazis, killed Heydrich and lost their lives. It’s a harrowing story and a wonderful film full of tension, violence and dead fascists.
More than anything, Anthropoid shows the cost of defying an oppressor. The Nazis intimidate, torture and murder anyone in their way. The Czech freedom fighters know the assassination may make things worse, but they’re willing to take the chance and pay the price.
Anthropoid is a great film that slipped under the radar. Bleecker Street released it during the summer to middling reviews and a small box office. That’s a shame, because it’s a stunning movie with beautiful cinematography, stellar acting and surprising historical accuracy.
The film’s financial and critical failure is, I think, in part due to its name. Operation Anthropoid was the codename for the plot planned by the Czech government in exile to assassinate Heydrich. It’s a taxonomic term that refers to anything resembling a human being, but it sucks as a movie title for anything but a sci-fi flick. Don’t let it scare you off.
Cillian Murphy plays the older Czech agent Gabčík and Jamie Dornan plays the younger Kubiš. They’re both great, which’ll shock anyone who only knows Dornan from his turn as billionaire kinkster Christian Grey from Fifty Shades of Grey.
The actors — all of them — are good but the real star of this production is director Sean Ellis, who also produced, co-wrote and served as cinematographer. That’s a ton of work and it pays off in every shot.
Ellis brought his actors to Prague and shot on site as much as possible. He pored over the historical record and painfully recreated both the explosive assassination in the film’s middle and the standoff between Czech patriots and Nazis in a Prague church based on eyewitness accounts.
Anthropoid is slavish in its attention to historical detail. So much so that one of the few historical inconsistencies is the placement of a severed head. When see it, know that it was actually presented in a fish tank, not a bucket.
But devotion to historical accuracy doesn’t matter if the film isn’t any good, and painful recreations of the past have sunk many an ambitious film. It doesn’t sink Anthropoid.
Director Ellis pulls the camera back and grabs beautiful establishing shots of Prague. Different characters have different points of view, and so the camera moves differently when we look through their eyes.
One great scene has Gabčík and Kubiš walking down the street to a secret meeting of the resistance. Women agents accompany them so they don’t look strange or out of place on the streets of Prague alone.
Gabčík casts his glance as every passerby on the street, his head twists as he notices every small movement, every chance meeting and every glance from a stranger. The younger Kubiš simply strolls and talks to the young woman on his arm, as if he’s trying to put the war out of his mind.
The first half of the film is tense and paranoid in every frame. When they land in 1941, Heydrich has almost wiped out the remaining resistance. Nazis wander down every street and gunshots echo in the distance of many scenes. The people whisper of the horrors occurring in Poland. They’re almost broken.
Gabčík and Kubiš must fight not only the Nazis but their fellow resistance members. There is no guarantee that assassinating Heydrich will make anything better, the contrarians argue. There’s a very good chance it will make things far worse. To carry out the mission will take the combined might of every remaining agent still loyal to the Czech government in exile … and London is far away from Prague.
The music is sparse, a discordant violin here and a light piano rumble there, and Murphy’s tired angry eyes fill every frame he’s in. A normal film about World War II would ease that tension every 10 or 15 minutes with an action beat, but Ellis never lets you off the hook. Instead, he ups the paranoia again and again until the audience is ready to climb the walls.
Then, halfway through the film, he shows us the most splendid assassination gone wrong ever committed to film. Not all the the agents show for the final moment, and Murphy’s Sten gun jams, leaving everyone vulnerable and the Nazis very much alive.
The gunplay here is great, especially the handgun play. This doesn’t look like a typical, bad ass Hollywood action scene. The Nazi officers and Czech agents run through the streets of Prague firing at each other, their hands snapping with recoil.
Every shot is a potshot and arms and hands move wild as the men stumble through the crowd and hope they hit their opponents anywhere on their body.
It looked like what it was — young men with hopes of a better world playing with forces they didn’t understand. It’s stupid and brave and beautiful all at once.
Spoilers ahead unless you know your history.
In the film as well as in history, things did not go well. Heydrich did die as a result of wounds sustained in the attack and the Nazis — some of the biggest assholes in history — wasted no time in punishing the Czech people.
Around 5,000 men and women died in the initial backlash. Later, when the Nazis thought they’d tracked the assassins down to the small village of Lidice, they razed the village and either murdered its inhabitants or sent them to camps. The same happened to the village of Ležáky when the Germans discovered resistance radio equipment there.
The climactic battle happens in the film mostly as it happened in reality. The collective might of 750 Nazi troops had trouble removing the small number of resistance fighters from the church. The tear gas, flood tactics and barricades were all real.
Best estimates suggest around a dozen Nazis died and around 20 sustained injuries. All the resistance fighters either fell to German bullets or killed themselves to avoid capture.
These men paid the highest price in service to their country. That’s what it takes to fight fascism, courage beyond compare and the ability — not to do what’s right — but to put one foot in front of the other while all the world calls you mad.
After Germany cracked down on Czechoslovakia, Winston Churchill nullified the Munich Agreement — the dastardly bit of appeasement that gave the Nazis so much control in the first place. It was a political victory instead of a martial one, but it was not hollow.