Directed by Sean Ellis.
Starring Cillian Murphy, Jamie Dornan, Anna Geislerová, Charlotte Le Bon and Alena Mihulová.
Based on the true story of WWII’s Operation Anthropoid, where resistance fighters in Czechoslovakia attempted to assassinate “Butcher of Prague,” SS General Reinhard Heydrich.
According to Oxford Dictionaries, “anthropoid” means “resembling a human being in form.” In Sam Ellis’ historical drama Anthropoid, Josef Gabcík (Cillian Murphy) uses a similar definition to correct Marie’s (Charlotte Le Bon) calling their mission murder. For Operation Anthropoid to be murder, SS General Reinhard Heydrich would have to act like a human being. As the third highest ranking member of the Nazi Party, who executed thousands of civilians in Czechoslovakia, and was a primary engineer of the Holocaust and Final Solution, what they’re attempting is his assassination.
Among those parachuted into Czechoslovakia from London, Josef and Jan Kubis (Jamie Dornan) are assigned with carrying out the charge. The catch, besides the obvious difficulty of getting close to such a protected figure, is that there’s no arrangement for extraction. Starting with their contact on site already being dead, London’s detachment is never more apparent than with the lack of instruction offered on how they should proceed afterwards. Czechoslovakia doesn’t have the numbers for a rescue mission. Besides a handful of allies that can be trusted, Josef and Jan are on their own. Little room is left for delusions over what that means.
Still, knowingly walking towards death isn’t easy. Despite early characterizations as militant (Murphy) and hopeful (Dornan), a taut script and superb acting allow both leads to display their humanity as much as their dedication. That this is partly managed with romantic subplots may seem a little too convenient in construction but it’s effective. In particular, Anna Geislerová is standout as Lenka, who has been fighting locally long before either man got there.
Then there is the question as to whether the mission should be carried out at all. Heydrich is a monster. No one disputes that. Heydrich, however, is never going to be the only victim of Operation Anthropoid. Personal stakes may color objections with accusations of self-interest, but reprisals against the Czech people are inevitable and the conversations around them inconclusive. Taking the blame for others’ future atrocities, and allowing fear to dictate actions, serves no one, but working on behalf of the “greater good” has a cost.
While a shootout sequence is racking in terms of length and perseverance, many of Anthropoid’s most affecting scenes involve having the willpower to survive, as much as the willpower to end one’s life (capture is the worst case scenario). You expect to fight when you’re a soldier. Holding back, while those who weren’t involved pay the price, to ensure the resistance isn’t wiped out, takes a different fortitude. Watching characters struggle to follow logic over personal feeling, during the film’s second half, makes for powerful cinema.
If Anthropoid was a piece of fiction, the assassination would be reserved for the end of the film, the results quick and clear, dead or alive, without much time to spend mulling an aftermath. If it were a piece of fiction, bystanders caught in the chaos would be glossed over, anonymous victims, too abstract to sink in as ramifications, like cars knocked off the road in King Kong or Godzilla movies.
It’s not a spoiler to say the mission doesn’t go entirely to plan. Ellis’ choice not to skip over the consequences, but rather place them in the spotlight, makes a few unnecessary embellishments (violin music leading up to a confrontation) inconsequential. This is a great movie and the story it tells an even more important moment in history.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★