Directed by Sean Ellis.
Starring Cillian Murphy, Jamie Dornan, Charlotte Le Bon, Anna Geislerova and Toby Jones.
A small group of resistance fighters undertake a mission to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, head of security in Czechoslovakia and number three in Hitler’s chain of command. Based on true events from World War II.
The poster’s a giveaway but, if you can, avert your eyes for a moment and ask yourself this. What does the name Anthropoid conjure up? Something Predator-like, or a menacing look into the future? The word itself means “like a human being or ape”, so could it be something to do with genetic modification? All wrong, of course, because this isn’t a title that aims to create a particular image in your mind. It’s simply being historically accurate and is named after World War II’s Operation Anthropoid, the plot to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich who, at the time, had ben put in charge of security in Czechoslovakia, with the main aim of crushing the resistance.
It starts quietly, with two parachutists landing in the snow-covered Czech countryside. They know their mission, but tracking down what’s left of the local resistance isn’t easy, nor is persuading them that they’re for real. Time is tight, with only a few days to plan and carry out the assassination. And there’s no plan for them to escape afterwards. So, right from the start, Jan Kubis (Jamie Dornan) and Josef Gabcik (Cillian Murphy) don’t seem to stand a chance of getting near their target, let alone shooting him. The same applies to everybody else involved in the plot.
Yet the moment when they shoot Heydrich isn’t the climax, because this is very much a film of two halves. Part one concentrates on planning and carrying out the mission, while part two is all about the aftermath. The first half is comparatively low-key, with enough of the undercurrent of fear that goes with being in an occupied country, but little in the way of actual drama. That all changes in the second half, which is full of action, tension and moments when you allow yourself to think that, despite everything being against them, some of the group might just get out alive. They’re cornered in a church and a prolonged battle ensues, one that in reality lasted over six hours. And that’s the real climax of the film. It’s given even more impact by being filmed partly in total silence and partly with just the bare minimum of soundtrack, leaving our imagination to re-create the deafening noise of it all.
While it has British writer/director Sean Ellis at the helm [listen to our exclusive interview here], the film benefits from substantial Czech involvement, from the government support to finance to members of the cast and crew. There’s a strong sense of the country wanting to bring its story, one of tragic success and huge bravery, to a wider audience. Well-known names and faces like Cillian Murphy, especially good as the driven and intense Gabcik, and Toby Jones as the quietly spoken resistance leader, help with that.
Ultimately, Anthropoid takes a while to get going – but when it does, fasten your proverbial seatbelt, because it takes you on a powerful, emotional ride, one that also makes you reflect on the desperation that drives people to commit such seemingly hopeless acts. At the end, we learn that after Heydrich was pronounced dead, the Nazis took their revenge by obliterating a small town. It’s a wonder that the story is still comparatively little known.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★