On the twenty-ninth of May 1942, Radio Prague announced that SS officer Reinhard Heydrich, the brutal ruler of Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia also known as the “Butcher of Prague,” lay dying at a hospital from wounds sustained in a daring ambush by Czech partisans as his car passed through the city. He would die on the morning of June 4.
The assassination of the third highest ranking Nazi official — only Hitler and Himmler outranked him — was earth-shattering at the time, most certainly for the reported 5,000 Czech civilians who died in the Nazi bloodbath that ensued. Yet the incident has become lost in the haze of history to all but World War II scholars and history buffs.
Sean Ellis’ “Anthropoid” means to change that. The movie’s title stems from the operation code given by Czechoslovak government in exile in London to the secret mission to assassinate Heydrich by parachuting two soldiers into their homeland to infiltrate Prague and carry out the mission.
Irish actors Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan play the two soldiers, Josef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš, who essentially signed up for a suicide mission. The film, which Ellis wrote with Stanley Kubrick’s longtime assistant Anthony Frewin, opens at the moment these two land in Czechoslovakia. You know nothing about these men, their backgrounds, training in the U.K. or why they elected to go on this mission.
This has the immediate effect of thrusting you into action and danger. But it contains the drawback that you know far too little about the film’s protagonists. And nothing that happens during the half year they spend preparing and strategizing their mission enlightens you further.
So Ellis has made a somewhat dry film, intriguing in its true-life aspects but lacking the grounding all good war (or spy) movies need. Each soldier has his own quirks and challenges and each falls in love with a different girl (possibly a fictional intervention). Yet other than being heartily on their side, you want to identify better with these men from history; you want to know why they acted as they did.
Murphy is the steely team leader while Dornan (trying to make amends for “Fifty Shades of Grey” perhaps?) makes a solid counterpart as a soldier who gets awfully nervous when he has to kill an enemy. The two certainly woo in different ways, but not enough in their interaction with others defines them as human beings.
The two actresses, French-Canadian Charlotte Le Bon and Czech Anna Geislerová, make a striking contrast between a more naive young woman and a determined Nazi hater and resistance fighter.
Scenes involving resistance leaders, or what’s left of them after a few years of Nazi rule, are made intriguing by a clash in strategies: Marcin Dorociński plays a more cautious and, even he admits, frightened leader while British actor Toby Jones plays a senior leader willing to take big risks.
Czech veteran actress Alena Mihulová has several strong scenes as the family matriarch who hides the two parachutists. Bill Milner as her son is set up far too obviously as a future Nazi victim.
The movie bifurcates into almost two completely different movies. The first hour focuses on the men’s entry into Prague — almost nothing was planned well unlike most secret wartime missions in movies —and their preparation along with fellow paratroopers for the assassination. The second hour is nearly all action or horrific drama.
The assassination sequence is well planned and shot; you get a solid idea of what went right and wrong and the role luck played in the officer’s death. What follows though is even more dynamic.
Once a colleague rats them out, the church where all the paratroopers hide is surrounded by German soldiers. A battle ensues that, in reality, lasted for 14 hours as the Czech partisans held out against overwhelming odds, killing 14 German solders and wounding many more.
This is the film’s piece de resistance. Ellis, who operates his own camera, shoots this sequence, as he does the entire movie, in super 16mm film, thus capturing the raw, gritty action most impressively.
The shame is that for all the years of research and planning that went into making this film, Ellis didn’t allow himself the luxury of invention in areas where the record is silent. You learn much about the most successful assassination of a high-ranking Nazi official during World War II. But not nearly enough about the men who pulled it off.
Opens: August 12, 2016 (Bleecker Street)
Production companies: LD Entertainment, Lucky Man Films, Z Film Production
Cast: Cillian Murphy, Jamie Dornan, Charlotte Le Bon, Harry Lloyd, Toby Jones, Anna Geislerová, Sam Keeley, Bill Milner, Detlef Bothe, Jirí Šimek, Alena Mihulová, Marcin Dorociński
Director-director of photography: Sean Ellis
Screenplay: Sean Ellis, Anthony Frewin
Producers: Sean Ellis, Pete Shilaimon, Mickey Liddell
Production designer: Morgan Kennedy
Music: Robin Foster
Costume designer: Josef Čechota
Editor: Richard Mettler
R rating, 121 minutes