'The Man With the Iron Heart' ('HHhH'): Film Review

hhhh - Still 1 -Publicity-H 2017
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
Dark and darker.

Jason Clarke and Rosamund Pike star alongside Jack O'Connell and Mia Wasikowska in this French-produced drama about the Heydrich assassination during WWII.

The assassination — by two men of the Czechoslovak Resistance — of Reinhard Heydrich, the leader of Czechoslovakia under Nazi occupation, head of the Sicherheitsdienst and the brains behind the Final Solution, was the subject of films by both Fritz Lang and Douglas Sirk that were released in 1943, only a year after the events occurred. Something similar seems to be happening again now, almost 75 years later, with Sean Ellis' Anthropoid released last year (headlined by Cillian Murphy, Jamie Dornan and Toby Jones) and now the arrival of The Man With the Iron Heart (HHhH) from French director Cedric Jimenez, who casts Jason Clarke, Rosamund Pike, Jack O’Connell and Mia Wasikowska in the leads.

Rather unusually, Jimenez splits his take on the events into roughly two halves, the first of which charts the unlikely ascent to power of Heydrich, a loser dismissed from the army who is initially egged on by his flag-waving, National-Socialism-loving wife. The second half catches up with the Czechoslovak Resistance fighters who plot Heydrich’s assassination.

Finally less a two-stories-for-the-price-of-one situation than essentially two films of about an hour each, this is nonetheless a visually impressive Hollywood calling card for Jimenez, who almost manages to overcome the material’s structural weaknesses with impressive directorial verve. Whether Harvey Weinstein will want to release the film Stateside in its current version, however, is another matter entirely. 

Jimenez, whose action film The Connection attracted attention at TIFF in 2014, co-wrote the screenplay with his partner, Audrey Diwan, and British screenwriter David Farr (Hanna), and their work is based on the eponymous 2012 bestseller by Laurent Binet. The film opens with a quick flash forward to the moments just before the assassination, only to then backtrack to the German port city of Kiel in 1929, when Heydrich (Clarke) was court-martialed and dismissed for his relations with a woman. He was already seeing his future wife, Lina (Pike), then, and she is the one who suggests he join the Nazi Party, which subsequently leads to work for him and the request by the chicken farmer-turned-Nazi bigwig, Himmler (an oily Stephen Graham), to lead the Nazi intelligence agency, the SD.

There aren’t many contemporary English-language films where for almost 50 minutes, the only people onscreen are Nazis, which puts the audience in a weird spot as it has no real hero to identify with and there is no real conflict that needs to be solved (the lingering tension of the prologue’s brief flash-forward only lasts so long). Jimenez plays with this unease in a fascinating manner, alternating what at first sight feel like tender domestic scenes of the Heydrichs and their children with scenes of Reinhard involved in increasingly violent and then lethal scenarios as the Nazis come into power and WWII breaks out.

Jimenez and his editor, Chris Dickens, not only cut between Heydrich’s very different professional and private lives but even within sequences they sometimes take a montage-collage approach. This is the case in the court-martial scenes, which are intercut with Reinhard’s violent outburst of anger afterwards. This approach lends the proceedings jagged edges from the start, instilling a sense of unease and feeding into a realization that underneath that placid, untelling exterior, an unfeeling monster might be not only lurking but actually seething. This dichotomy arguably reaches its cold-blooded apex at a party scene at the Heydrichs, where Lina is told by one of her husband’s colleagues that Hitler has nicknamed her husband “the man with the iron heart,” while in the background, said man lifts up a baby.

While Reinhard’s character can almost be reduced to his placid exterior/monstrous interior duality, Lina’s character is more complex. She starts off as an early Nazi sympathizer who genuinely believed the party could turn her country around and who got her man out of the dumps and into a lucrative Nazi career but who finally finds herself married to someone who’s always absent and treats her like a glorified caretaker of his children.

In parallel, the handsomely produced feature lucidly and chillingly illustrates how the Nazis morphed from an unorganized group of dissatisfied rabble-rousers and losers into a well-oiled, merciless war machine whose systemic killings lead to the top brass, including Heydrich, having to think about something more efficient — the Final Solution. Unfolding for the narration’s first half without the filter of a hero trying to stop the madness, this is staged as a logical succession of viscerally charged, nightmarish and ever more terrifying events that really does feel unstoppable — and has an eerie contemporary resonance.

Almost an hour has gone by before Slovak resistance fighter, Jan (O’Connell, in the role played by Dornan in Anthropoid), and his Czech colleague, Jozef (Jack Reynor, from the more upbeat Sing Street), are parachuted into the Czechoslovak countryside and make their way to Prague, where the Resistance hides the duo while they prepare their mission. There is much less background here than in Anthropoid about how the two were supported by the Czechoslovak government-in-exile and even in the character department, Jan, Jozef, their resistance contacts and the local girls they hang out with remain outlines rather fully developed characters.

This is especially noteworthy when the girls are compared to Lina, the wife of the Nazi villain, who, somewhat unexpectedly, is a much more three-dimensional figure than the two stick-figure girlfriends the film’s heroes find themselves attracted to. (One of them is played by Mia Wasikowska, who doesn’t have much more to do than kiss Jan, wash his hair and dance around in slow-motion.) And while the first half is a near-constant crescendo of anxiety and tension as the Nazi machine builds and builds,  the  second half alternates between a few edgily staged setpieces and quieter moments during which much of the tension dissipates, resulting in an uneven rhythm as the film marches towards its final showdown, a shootout and subsequent flooding of a church that Jimenez handles with aplomb but which packed more punch in Anthropoid.   

While the screenplay, structure and rhythm are far from perfect, there’s no denying that Jimenez is a talented director of actors and action and that he excels at getting the most out of each shot in terms of production value. Besides sticking to the point-of-view of Heydrich for half the running time, Jimenez further reinforces the impression of the story being told from the inside out by having cinematographer Laurent Tangy work mostly with handheld cameras, which place the audience right in the thick of things. And until the finale, when it become borderline maudlin, Guillaume Roussel’s otherwise roving and pounding score is used very effectively.

In the end, Lina emerges as the unlikely central character, with Pike infusing her with some of the icy, Gone Girl toughness but then softening her somewhat as her disappointment with her husband grows (how she feels about her Nazi heroes’ atrocities never becomes Jimenez’s focus). Clarke is appropriately terrifying but his character is, of course, impossible to warm to, while the two Jacks are affable lads in underdeveloped roles, with Jimenez smartly closing the film with the rather upbeat first encounter between Jan and Jozef on the back of a truck.

Production company: Legende Films
Cast: Jason Clarke, Rosamund Pike, Jack O’Connell, Jack Reynor, Mia Wasikowska, Stephen Graham, Celine Sallette, Gilles Lellouche
Director: Cedric Jimenez
Screenplay: David Farr, Audrey Diwan, Cedric Jimenez, based on the book by Laurent Binet
Producers: Ilan Goldman, Daniel Crown
Director of photography: Laurent Tangy
Production designer: Jean-Philippe Moreaux
Costume designer: Olivier Beriot
Editor: Chris Dickens
Music: Guillaume Roussel
Casting: Francine Meisler, Reg Poerscout-Edgerton
Sales: Filmnation

In English
No rating, 120 minutes