Directed by Sean Ellis
Starring Cillian Murphy, Jamie Dornan, Toby Jones
Released on 9th September 2016
The 1944 assassination attempt on Hitler came close to changing the course of World War II and has been more than well-documented – including Tom Cruise’s Valkyrie (2003). But two years before came an attempt in Prague on his third in command, Reinhard Heydrich, an event that, outside Czechoslovakia, has lingered in the historical shadows.
But British writer/director/cinematographer Sean Ellis has brought it to the big screen in the shape of Anthropoid, a title that has nothing to do with sci-fi but everything to do with historical accuracy. The code name for the mission to wipe out Heydrich was Operation Anthropoid. At the time, he was responsible for security in Czechoslovakia, charged with wiping out the resistance and earning the moniker of “The Butcher Of Prague.” It was only revealed much later that he was also the architect of The Final Solution: what he could have had in store for the Czechs doesn’t bear thinking about.
The film gets off to a quiet start, with two parachutists landing in the snow-covered countryside. They’re clear about their mission, but the local resistance is difficult to find as their target has been ruthlessly effective in cutting them down. Even when they do make contact, they still have to persuade them to help in the assassination attempt and only have a short period of time to plan and carry it out. What they don’t have is an escape plan for afterwards …….
Right from the start, Jan Kubis (Jamie Dornan) and Josef Gabcik (Cillian Murphy) have the odds stacked against them. They didn’t stand a chance of getting out alive and they were even less likely to get their man. Yet the irony was that this seemingly hopeless mission actually worked, even though they spend a long time in the film thinking they’ve failed. But even then, they and the rest of the resistance knew that the cost to them as individuals and the Czech people as a whole would be high. And merciless.
It’s a film of two halves. The first is all about setting the scene, plotting the assassination and carrying it out, all against the backdrop of fear that’s part of day to life in an occupied country. What you would expect to be the climax is actually only the halfway point. Part two concentrates on the aftermath and it’s then that the film really takes off, with the assassins trying to escape and eventually being cornered in a church. It’s full of action, tension and moments when you dare to think that, despite the odds being against them all over again, they might just get away. It all culminates in an explosive battle between the group and hundreds of Nazi troops.
While there’s a Brit at the helm, the Czech Republic has been heavily involved in the making of Anthropoid: government funding, members of the cast and crew and much of the filming taking place in Prague itself. It’s a story that the Czech people are deeply proud of and there’s a strong sense throughout that they wanted a wider audience to see and understand this story, with all its tragic success and huge bravery. The inclusion of well-known names like Cillian Murphy (excellent as the intense Gabcik), Jamie Dornan and Toby Jones (the leader of the Czech resistance and the film’s moral compass) will certainly help with that.
As a film it does take its time, but once it takes off, hold onto your seat, because you’re in for a pulsating ride. And it’s one that makes you reflect on the level of desperation that drives people to commit what seem like totally hopeless acts. The reprisals after the death of Heydrich are related by captions at the end, including the obliteration of an entire small town. The assassins paid the ultimate price, and so did many of their innocent countrymen. But, although they didn’t know at the time, the consequences of failure would have been infinitely higher.
For more on Anthropoid, listen to my interview with its director, Sean Ellis, exclusively on Flickering Myth.
Anthropoid is released in cinemas on 9 September and reviewed on Talking Pictures on 8 September.