In 1942, Operation Anthropoid, piloted by the Czechoslovak government-in-exile, successfully went after and killed Reinhard Heydrich, one of the main architects of the Final Solution as well as the de facto leader of Czechoslovakia. Of course, this heroic success in the face of evil speaks to the imagination; exiled auteurs Fritz Lang and Douglas Sirk made films inspired by the events that were both released barely a year later. That said, neither Lang’s Hangmen Also Die nor Sirk’s Hitler’s Madmen were historically very accurate, because of propaganda needs and since it wasn’t yet entirely clear at that time what exactly had happened.
The episode remains largely unknown except to history buffs and scholars. So the arrival of Anthropoid, by British director Sean Ellis (Cashback), is certainly welcome, even if the film itself is much too subdued. At least it is until a — historically accurate! — final siege in which seven men hold out against hundreds of Nazi soldiers in an Orthodox church in Prague for several hours. Marketing for this title, which Bleecker Street will release stateside Aug. 12, will have to rely heavily on the charisma of leads Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan to sell the goods, though it will nonetheless remain a niche title theatrically.
Much like Ellis’ 2013 Sundance feature Metro Manila, Anthropoid is a film that could have used more action to draw out the characters’ dilemmas. But until the impressive final-reel shootout, Ellis’ latest is more of a military/resistance procedural than anything else. It follows Slovak soldier Josef Gabcik (Murphy) and his Czech colleague Jan Kubis (Dornan) from the moment they are parachuted into the woods of Bohemia until the actual assassination and lengthy, bloody aftermath that followed.
When they arrive in Prague, Jan and Josef contact the local resistance, led by Jan Zelenka (Toby Jones in a glorified cameo role). The men find not only a roof over their heads with a family presided over by a kindly matron (Czech veteran actress Alena Mihulova) but also two women they use as cover to be able to go outside without attracting too much attention. Rather predictably, it doesn’t take long for Josef to take a shine to Lenka (local star Anna Geislerova, Zelary), while Jan falls hard for Anna (Quebec actress Charlotte Le Bon, Yves Saint Laurent). However, this is the kind of old-fashioned, whiskey- and tea-colored period piece in which longing looks have to do all the heavy lifting (Fifty Shades fans will be sorely — no pun intended — disappointed).
It takes over an hour before the day of the assassination finally unfolds onscreen. Up until that point, Anthropoid is a calm, even stagnant affair, with rarely exciting scenes of preparation and planning alternating with domestic scenes and a few internecine struggles within the resistance (are people principally opposed to the assassination or could they be rats?). Indeed, for a feature about the highest-ranking Nazi official to be successfully assassinated during the entire war, it’s rather odd that Ellis, who co-wrote the screenplay with former Kubrick assistant Anthony Frewin, can’t come up with anything more action-packed or tension-filled in the first hour than a broken teacup. Valkyrie this is not.
The leads, who speak English with vague Mitteleuropean accents, aren’t much more exciting either, with Jozef and Jan lacking in backstory or any specific motivation for agreeing to what could clearly turn into a suicide mission, beyond their vague love for their fatherland and a desire for change. The characters lack individuality and Dornan and Murphy can only do so much with the stick-figure outlines they’ve been given. Only Le Bon’s Anna, who gets a good crying scene, manages to stir the audience’s emotions somewhat before the film’s impressively staged final battle sets the pulse (if not necessarily the heart) racing.
This sequence, both the pic’s and the characters’ piece de resistance, is impressively staged and choreographed and captured in nervous, you-are-there camerawork courtesy of the director. But even as the stakes are raised and some blood finally starts coursing through the story’s veins, it’s impossible to keep from wondering whether this elaborate shootout is really of a piece with the rest of Anthropoid or whether we’re suddenly watching a 1942 Czech edition of The Raid set in an Orthodox church.
Venue: Karlovy Vary Film Festival
Distributor: Bleecker Street
Production companies: LD Entertainment, Lucky Man Films, Z Film Production
Cast: Cillian Murphy, Jamie Dornan, Charlotte Le Bon, Harry Lloyd, Toby Jones, Anna Geislerova, Sam Keeley, Bill Milner, Detlef Bothe, Jiri Simek, Alena Mihulova
Director-director of photography: Sean Ellis
Screenplay: Sean Ellis, Anthony Frewin
Producers: Sean Ellis, Pete Shilaimon, Mickey Liddell
Production designer: Morgan Kennedy
Costume designer: Josef Cechota
Editor: Richard Mettler
Music: Robin Foster
Casting: Des Hamilton
Not rated, 121 minutes