Hollywood didn’t wait long to dramatize Operation Anthropoid, the code name for the Czechs’ mission to eliminate SS honcho Reinhard Heydrich—the only high-ranking Nazi (he was third highest in the chain of command, beneath only Hitler and Himmler) who was successfully assassinated during World War II. Heydrich was killed in June of 1942; by the following year, with the war still very much raging, both Fritz Lang and Douglas Sirk had already made movies chronicling the events: Lang’s was called Hangmen Also Die, while Sirk went with the even pulpier title Hitler’s Madman. Both accounts were heavily fictionalized, as were (to a lesser extent) subsequent film versions like 1975’s Operation Daybreak, which even changed the title of the mission to something less off-putting. The latest attempt, however, is having none of that. Not only does this one dare to call itself Anthropoid, at the risk of being confused with sci-fi schlock, but it also doggedly sticks to what actually happened, for better and worse. Dramatically, it’s not much of a movie, but if you just want to know how things went down, it’s certainly a more exciting précis than Wikipedia’s.
Subtitled dialogue is now so prevalent in film and on television that it’s a bit weird to see a throwback like this, in which the Germans speak (unsubtitled) German, but our Czech heroes all speak English (which we’re presumably meant to understand is really Czech). The mission itself was carried out primarily by two men: Josef Gabcík (Cillian Murphy) and Jan Kubis (Jamie Dornan), who are first seen parachuting back into occupied Czechoslovakia after having prepared with the country’s exiled government in the U.K. After making contact with what little remains of the Czech resistance, Gabcík and Kubis set about trying to determine the best way to get to Heydrich, who’s perpetually under heavy guard; they settle on a plan in which they’ll ambush his convertible during his daily commute, though this approach seems fairly suicidal. Not everyone is on board, either—some resistance members are concerned, with what turns out to be good reason, that assassinating Heydrich will lead to Nazi reprisals and the deaths of untold Czech civilians. When the plan does succeed—despite being mostly botched—there’s still plenty more horror to come.
Directed by Sean Ellis (Cashback, Metro Manila), who co-wrote the screenplay with Anthony Frewin, Anthropoid suffers from the most common problem that afflicts historical dramas of this sort: It isn’t really about anything. Gabcík and Kubis are strictly functional characters, though they’re both given romances in an effort to humanize them somewhat. Gabcík’s platonic yet passionate relationship with a civilian named Lenka, who assists during the planning stages and pays the ultimate price, gets a charge from the terrific performance of actual Czech actor Anna Geislerová, but is still too skimpy to support the weight that the movie ultimately places upon it. Anthropoid’s notion of an emotional arc for Kubis, on the other hand, involves initially depicting him as so terrified that his hands tremble uncontrollably whenever he aims his pistol, thereby making his actions in the finale seem even more courageous. (This appears to have been one of the few aspects of the film that was wholly invented.) The crucial question of whether Operation Anthropoid represented sound military strategy, meanwhile, receives only the faintest lip service.
Still, nobody could ever claim that Anthropoid fails to accurately depict the mission’s ugly fallout. While the film is mostly a slog whenever people are talking and plotting (sample dialogue: “How’s life in occupied Prague?”), it kicks into high gear during the assassination itself and rarely eases the throttle thereafter. Ellis serves as his own cinematographer and primary camera operator here, à la Soderbergh, and while his choice to render World War II in oppressively drab sepia is debatable, he does understand how to build suspense and orchestrate chaos. The most remarkable aspect of the story is the six-hour siege at Karel Boromejsky Church, where Gabcík, Kubis, and five other Czech resistance fighters were hiding when the Nazis managed to “extract” the information of their whereabouts from their civilian allies (in a horrific way that the movie, to its credit, refuses to either downplay or sensationalize). It’s at once admirable and damning that the film’s ostensible protagonists are barely distinguishable, during this startlingly intense sequence, from the other five men, who’ve barely made any previous impression. Anthropoid is at its best when it’s about the nuts and bolts of the operation itself, along with its repercussions. Even minor movie stars like Murphy and Dornan, and efforts to individualize their characters, ultimately serve as a distraction.