Movie Review: Anthropoid
By Matthew Huntley
August 22, 2016
There have been countless movies made about World War II, both from Hollywood and studios abroad, and their stories are most often told from the perspective of Americans, Germans or the Japanese, which isn't surprising given the corresponding countries were the most “popular” at the time. But practically every nation on earth has its own WWII stories to share, and one of the refreshing aspects of Anthropoid is that it tells us about a relevant albeit not generally well-known event that took place in Czechoslovakia and tells it from the point of view of Czechoslovakian characters (though they're played by mostly non-Czech actors).
The event is the attempted assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, a high-ranking Nazi official, by a group of Czech resistance fighters. Heydrich's brutality in Czechoslovakia following Germany's invasion in 1939 earned him the nickname, “The Butcher of Prague,” and he's also credited with architecting Hitler's infamous “Final Solution” - the plan to exterminate all Jews in Europe.
Director and co-writer Sean Ellis uses this event not only to convey an important history lesson, but to evoke an atmosphere of dread and dire anticipation for the characters, who believed they were acting in the best interests of not only their country but also the world by ridding it of evil. Ellis and Anthony Frewin's screenplay sees these men not as superheroes or action stars, but rather as vulnerable human beings who, despite their important and complex mission, were still subject to emotions such as fear, anxiety, love and anger. The film also stresses their plan was not guaranteed to succeed, and whether or not it does, I leave for you to discover either by seeing Anthropoid or reading about its history. For these reasons, we can appreciate the film, not least because it reminds us the war affected other, less “popular” nations and its people.
However, the film's assets only take it so far, because underlying its arguably engaging story, strong acting and noble intentions is a rather conventional and uninspired structure, much of which is too routine and manipulative to really get behind. Even if it is based on fact, we've seen other historical dramas and pure action movies play out the same way and employ similar narrative devices, right down to one of the final shots in which one character sees a vision of another before deciding his own fate. Surely there must have been a more original and artistic way to transcribe the history surrounding Anthropoid besides having it all boil down to a shoot-out. Just because it happened in real life doesn't mean it has to happen on film. The cinema, after all, is a platform for artistic expression, and compromises can be made to represent truth if it means a more stimulating experience.
The film stars Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan as Jozef Gabcík and Jan Kubiš, two agents from the now London-based Czech government in 1942. They parachute 30km outside of Prague and eventually meet other members of the resistance movement, including "Uncle" Jan Zelenka-Hajský (Toby Jones), informing them they've been ordered to assassinate Heydrich as part of “Operation Anthropoid.” The others think Gabcík and Kubiš are crazy, since killing a prominent Nazi officer would certainly result in numerous reprisals at the hands of the German military. But Gabcík and Kubiš have their orders, and soon their plans to target Heydrich are set in motion. They set up a headquarters with a modest Czech family and meet two women who support their cause, Marie (Charlotte Le Bon) and Lenka (Anna Geislerová).
I can't say for sure, but I'm guessing the two female characters, unlike Gabcík and Kubiš, didn't exist in real life and were written into the screenplay merely to make the two agents more human and relatable, as Gabcík falls in love with Lenka and Kubiš with Marie. Ellis seems determined to show us that, amidst the agents' planning of their difficult operation and enduring the stresses and pressures that go along with it, not to mention their incessant paranoia, these men were still in need of affection.
But while the two actresses are perfectly convincing, their characters, like many others, come across as more stock types than full-fledged individuals, which actually represents the movie's greater problem of relying too heavily on WWII and action movie conventions to tell its story. In fact, most of the “good characters” only seem included in the drama just so they can either be killed or tortured later on as a means to underline the Nazi's mercilessness and invoke the audience's sympathy. We've seen this strategy before and it's gotten so familiar that it's simply not as effective as it once was.
That's not to say Anthropoid isn't somewhat involving and it does give us a good sense of the characters' dilemma, both from a mental and logistical point of view. Robin Foster's score and Richard Mettler's editing are also noteworthy for the way they generate tension, which the film releases during a series of brutal, visceral scenes. But these aren't enough to divert our attention away from its overall traditional and often mundane structure. In the end, Anthropoid contains an extraordinary story but relays it in ordinary fashion. It's important to be aware of the history the film is trying to communicate, but because it's a film, it's also important that it entertain and envelop us, and Anthropoid doesn't quite fulfill that duty.