Film Review: Anthropoid

'Anthropoid' recounts the experiences of two resistance fighters who parachute into occupied Czechoslovakia to assassinate a high-ranking SS officer. Thought-provoking snippets and moments of suspense surface, but for the most part the film is generic.
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There are World War II enthusiasts who cannot get their fill of films zeroing in on Nazis, collaborators, resistance fighters, assassination attempts (successful and failed), betrayal, heroics, twists and turns (think Valkyrie), with lots of bloodletting (think Inglourious Basterds).

Anthropoid undoubtedly meets all the requirements and then some. For starters, it recounts a historical event, though not widely known, of two Czechoslovakian undercover operatives who parachute into their occupied homeland to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, a top-ranking SS officer, principal architect of the Final Solution and head of Nazi forces in German-occupied Czechoslovakia.

Under Heydrich’s tenure—he was dubbed “The Butcher of Prague”—the city is in lockdown and Nazi guards are visible everywhere. Thanks to the Munich Agreement, Czechoslovakia was essentially handed over to Nazi Germany in 1938. Operation Anthropoid was the code name for the 1941 assassination mission.

The event is film-worthy, but without new insights, an unexpected narrative or layered characters (something original), it’s another formulaic genre flick. Regrettably, there’s nothing that pushes the envelope here beyond the many scenes shot through a brown-tinted lens (or so it appears) and the sporadic use of a tremulous handheld camera.  Director Sean Ellis’ cinematography is self-conscious and distracting.

Josef Gabcík (Cillian Murphy) and Jan Kubis (Jamie Dornan), the two soldiers working on behalf of the Czechoslovakian army-in-exile, join forces with Prague’s disintegrating resistance network headed by Uncle Hajský (Toby Jones) and Ladislav Vanek (Marcin Dorocinski). The latter, a minor character, is the most complex figure in the film, raising valid questions about the whole mission and underscoring the soldiers’ own uncertainty. Vanek rightly points out that should they succeed in killing Heydrich, he’ll simply be replaced and the brutality towards the civilian population will be unprecedented. Neither Josef nor Jan has an answer and it soon becomes clear they are fearful and ill-equipped fighters following orders with in fact little personal commitment to their assignment, short of duty. This interesting snippet is a derailment from the larger story being told and quickly dropped.

For the next five months, Jan and Josef live with a sympathetic and brave family while they and their comrades plan the assassination strategy. As a camouflage, both men have “girlfriends” (Anna Geislerová and Charlotte Le Bon) with whom they predictably enough fall in love. A degree of suspense flickers beneath the surface at least until Heydrich is ambushed, at which point an inevitable reign of terror is unleashed on the whole city as the Nazis attempt to track down the assassins and those who aided them. There are unwatchable torture scenes. Naturally, the assassins are betrayed.

Holed up in the Karel Boromejsky Church, Jan, Josef and their compatriots are now determined to fight to the death the hundreds of Nazi troops—who have at their command an endless supply of soldiers with the most high-tech ammunition in hand—assaulting the sanctuary. It’s a stunning act of bravery and sacrifice on the heroes’ part and the moviegoer wants to be in teary-eyed awe. But, unfortunately, the battle scenes in the church go on ad nauseam and by the end the viewer (this one, anyway) is silently begging the resistance fighters to swallow their suicide pills.

Just before the credits roll, several sentences summing up the facts of the story appear onscreen, not least how the assassination, followed by the soldiers’ martyrdom in the church, ultimately led to the repeal of the Munich Agreement. These are the most potent moments in the film. Dramatization is not always an enhancing tool. In this instance, it’s a trivializing exercise.

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