It is with a heavy heart that I begin to write today. Last week I decided to write about a movie called Anthropoid, which is a dramatization of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich which took place in 1942. It’s a movie with a lot of gun violence, and after what happened in Las Vegas after the weekend I wondered if it was the right movie to write about. I’m going to go through with it, but this week in addition to the standard spoiler warning I’m just going to say that this post will be getting into some pretty dark stuff, so if you don’t want to read about a film in which many people are killed with guns only a few days after dozens of Americans were actually killed with guns, I completely understand.
That being said, let’s get to the movie. Anthropoid is a movie which was released last year, starring Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan, and was written, produced, and directed by Sean Ellis (he was also the cinematographer). Ellis is an English filmmaker with only a handful of directing credits, but Anthropoid is one of the best-directed films I’ve seen in quite some time. It flew under the radar last year, but it’s a great movie and deserves to be more widely known.
Reinhard Heydrich was an evil man. He was one of the highest-ranking Nazi officials and one of the main architects of the Holocaust. Hitler himself referred to Heydrich as “the man with the iron heart” and the people of Czechoslovakia nicknamed him the Butcher of Prague. I’m not going to say much more about him because I am not a historian and because writing about such a monstrous person is depressing. Suffice to say that if one were to compile a list of the most evil humans to ever exist, Heydrich would more than earn his place.
As I talk about the film, I’m going to be talking about historical events as the film depicts them, and I’m sure the movie takes some liberties with the actual events (as all movies based on true events inevitably do). Just letting all the historians out there know that in advance.
The movie’s main characters are Josef Gabcik, played by Murphy, and Jan Kubis, played by Dornan. Both Gabcik and Kubis were real people, and the performances by Murphy and Dornan are excellent. Murphy is a talented and versatile actor, while Dornan is unfortunately known best as Christian Grey from those godawful Fifty Shades of Grey movies (no, I haven’t seen them, nor do I ever intend to). For those of you who think Dornan is a bad actor based on those movies alone, I’ve got some potentially surprising news: he’s really good in Anthropoid. Amazing what an actor can do when given good material and a director who gives a shit.
For me, one of the most remarkable things about the movie is how genuine it feels. A lesser filmmaker could have taken this story and turned it into a Dirty Dozen-style action thriller about heroic underdogs assassinating a horrible person and subsequently going out in a blaze of glory. But director/producer/screenwriter/cinematographer Sean Ellis wisely and correctly realized that that would be a false way of telling the story, and instead makes the film frighteningly realistic. It portrays its characters as deeply flawed and unsure if what they’re doing is really the right course of action, and doesn’t gloss over the horrific consequences of their actions.
Gabcik, Kubis, and their fellow conspirators are scared and uncertain. They were airdropped into Czechoslovakia with orders from the exiled Czech government in London to assassinate Heydrich, but the way the movie portrays it the details were mostly left to them. The first part of the film follows Gabcik and Kubis as they meet up with their contacts and form a plan to ambush Heydrich while he is out taking a drive. One of the biggest complications is that Heydrich sometimes travels with an armed escort and they haven’t been able to discern a pattern as to when Heydrich will be guarded.
They decide to wait for a day when Heydrich is unguarded, but when they receive news that Heydrich will be returning to Germany in a few days, it forces their hand and decide to ambush him regardless of the presence of an armed escort. Fortunately, when the moment arrives Heydrich is alone, but when Gabcik steps into the road in front of Heydrich’s car and attempts to open fire on him with a machine gun, his gun jams. As Heydrich and his driver prepare to shoot Gabcik, Kubis, who was positioned nearby, throws an anti-tank grenade at the vehicle and wounds Heydrich. Heydrich stays in the vehicle while his driver pursues Gabcik, who is able to shoot him and escapes.
This is the way the film portrays it, and from what I’ve read the film’s depiction of how the assassination played out is highly accurate. Ellis extensively researched the actions of every member involved in the assassination, and even portrays the events of the assassination in real time, meaning that the amount of time the film spends showing the assassination is the actual amount of time the events themselves took to occur.
That’s an impressive commitment to detail and historical accuracy. The entire film is tense as hell, and there’s very little artificiality to it. There’s little in the way of background music for most of the film, and Ellis uses this to increase the tension to nearly unbearable levels. There are no scenes of Gabcik and Kubis’ bosses back in London strategizing, and no scenes of Heydrich himself doing whatever it was that a sick bastard like him did in his day-to-day life. The viewer doesn’t know anything more about Heydrich’s movements than the assassins do. There is also a strong sense of just how isolated Gabcik and Kubis are. They have a few co-conspirators but little to no outside help. They are on their own.
At first, they fear that they botched the assassination, but a few days later, as they are hiding out in a church, they get the news that Heydrich died as a direct result of the wounds he sustained during the assassination attempt. From what I’ve read it sounds like he died of infected shrapnel wounds. The Nazis get a hint of the assassins’ location when one of their own, a Czech resistance operative named Karel Curda, betrays them for the sum of one million Reichsmarks.
Curda leads the Nazis to the home of the people Gabcik and Kubis stayed with during the planning of the attack. The mother of the family kills herself with a cyanide capsule before the Nazis can take her, but the rest of the family is not so lucky. There’s a horrific interrogation scene where the Nazis learn of the assassins’ location in a church from the teenage son of the family. I won’t describe the interrogation scene, but it’s appalling, and once again, from what I’ve read the depiction of the Gestapo’s interrogation methods is accurate, which is all the more horrifying if you see the film.
This leads to the final confrontation, which is one of the most epic and harrowing last stands in cinematic history. When the Nazis arrive at the church, three of the Czech resistance fighters are standing guard (one of which was Kubis) with the remaining four taking refuge in the crypt below the church. When the three start shooting, the four hiding in the crypt want to help but know that they can’t reveal themselves to the Nazis. The church shootout is intense and unrelenting, as the three Czechs desperately attempt to hold off wave after wave of well-armed and relentless German soldiers. Inevitably, all three are killed. The last to go is Kubis, who loads his last bullet into his gun at points it at his own head.
Just as he is about to pull the trigger, the film cuts to Gabcik’s horrified face in the crypt below as he hears the shot, and the expression on his face tells the whole story. It’s a quietly devastating moment, and is exemplary of the way Ellis directs the film. It’s not showy, it’s not stylized, it’s not drawn-out. It happens and it’s devastating and then it’s over and the survivors have to carry on. The Nazis soon realize where the remaining conspirators are hiding, and attempt to flush them out by flooding the crypt. Cornered, with the chamber flooding and the Nazis closing in, the surviving conspirators take their own lives.
Concluding text informs the viewer that Hitler’s reprisals were swift and terrible. Tens of thousands of Czechs were arrested, many of whom were later executed or died in concentration camps. The Czech villages of Lidice and Lezaky were burned to the ground and all their inhabitants either executed or imprisoned. It’s estimated that 5,000 innocent Czechs were killed as a direct result of Heydrich’s assassination. While the film mercifully doesn’t depict these events, it doesn’t ignore them either. Heydrich was the highest-ranking Nazi to be successfully assassinated during the Second World War, but it came at a terrible cost.
The movie is a poignant examination of morality and justice, and doesn’t shy away from depicting the violence of war. Anthropoid is not a combat movie like Saving Private Ryan or Hacksaw Ridge, it’s closer to Schindler’s List or The Pianist. It’s hard to watch at times but is well worth the effort, even if you never want to see it again after the first viewing. It’s not as graphic as Saving Private Ryan or Hacksaw Ridge, but is no less emotionally draining. It’s vividly realistic and fantastically-directed, with excellent performances across the board. It’s a movie that is challenging but very rewarding, and will stay with you for a long time.
Coming up next week is a long-awaited sequel to a bona fide sci-fi classic. It’s Blade Runner 2049.