It’s nice to see World War II films branching out into different stories. Reinhard Heydrich — or rather his nom de guerre, “The Butcher of Prague” — shows up on the periphery of many Holocaust stories, almost like a bogeyman who is never seen directly. Heydrich was the third in command of Nazi Germany. He organized Kristallnacht, set up the Gestapo along with other intelligence and security services, and was the chief architect of the deportation and genocide of Jews and other “undesirables” from German-occupied Europe.
And then he took over as governor of the part of Czechoslovakia that Germany had annexed in 1939, under the terms of the Munich Agreement, or “Diktat” as it was known in the occupied lands. His enforcement methods were brutal, with torture and executions the norm even for criminals who weren’t part of the Czech resistance. The Czech government-in-exile operating in London decided that he should be assassinated — a paramilitary operation dubbed “Anthropoid”.
Writer/director Sean Ellis’ movie, Anthropoid, comes in here, with the British-trained partisans Jozef Gabčík (Cillian Murphy) and Jan Kubiš (Jamie Dornan) parachuting into the outskirts of Prague along with a half-dozen others and making contact with what remains of the local resistance, headed up by Jan Zelenka-Hajský (Toby Jones). They are put up in a safe house under the protection of Mrs. Moravcová (Alena Mihulová), where they start making their plans. Jan strikes up a romance with flatmate Marie (Charlotte Le Bon), who introduces Jozef to her friend Lenka (Anna Geislerová) as cover for their operations.
Aside from providing some eye candy, the young women mostly serve to humanize the stakes for Jozef and Jan. The men are chasing after their target like a dog chasing a car, with no more thought given to what will happen if they succeed. The question comes up repeatedly, what do they think will happen after the assassination attempt? Killing one man will not bring the machine to a halt, and the blowback may be — and was — incredibly cruel even by Heydrich’s own standards. And since Ellis doesn’t have time to make Jan and Jozef’s families more than abstractions, Marie and Lenka serve in their places as objects to be threatened and killed in the wake of the operation to get emotional reactions out of the leads.
But that question itself is repeatedly waved off; it’s something for the government in London to decide, and not for these men to question why. The full extent of Germany’s wounded wrath is pushed into title cards at the end of the movie, along with any indication of what geopolitical significance this particular story has. And it has plenty, being the point at which the Allies dissolved the Munich Agreement and made freeing Czechoslovakia a goal of their campaign.
That’s why the story is so important to the film’s Czech backers, but it doesn’t seem to be of much importance to Ellis himself. No, the real purpose of Anthropoid is identical to that of Lone Survivor. Both movies seek to advance the Old Lie: dulce et decorum est pro patria mori — “it is sweet and good to die for one’s homeland”.
Anthropoid spends most of its second half on a siege assault on the church where the remaining conspirators hid out. As in Lone Survivor, the Nazi soldiers come in faceless hordes, to be mowed down in quick, single shots by the scrappy resistance defenders. But Ellis squeezes every ounce of pain he can muster out of the protagonists, and savors every drop of their blood before they die, usually as graphically as possible.
And it’s hardly limited to the soldiers; Ellis depicts the savage torture of a child (Bill Milner) with sadistic , almost pornographic glee. Every narrative function of this scene could be just as well satisfied in the next scene where his broken body is carried along a hallway, along with a line about the information he gave up. But the purpose of this scene isn’t narrative at all. On the surface it’s about reinforcing just how horrific the Nazis could be, which I doubt anyone in attendance doesn’t know already. And under that lies the disturbing truth that some part of Ellis believes that, on some level, his audience actually wants to see a boy turned into a bloody pulp as much as he wants to show it.
All of this is underscored none-too-subtly by readings from a convenient copy of Julius Caesar: “Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once.” That’s the axis around which this story turns: not sacrifice or even doubt in the face of great evil, but simply cowardice and valor. These men are great not because they achieved a great thing, but because they suffered greatly in doing so. At least according to this movie.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.