Just in case you forgot how evil Nazis were (still are?), Sean Ellis plots a two-hour reminder in his latest film, Anthropoid. Ellis and co-writer Anthony Frewin create a true biographical thriller at heart, one that highlights how Czech and Slovak soldiers fought against Hitler’s occupation in Czechoslovakia during WWII. The duo’s passion for historical accuracy is coupled with true-to-life implications, yet the film clunks on and on in the name of depressing, heartbreaking warcrimes. Filmmakers shouldn’t shy away from hard realities, but by the time Ellis counterbalances what seems to be a dragging, sullen narrative, we’re an hour-and-a-half past saving, no matter how grimly captivating a finale is cued up.
In 1942, a secret mission was carried out that would succeed in assassinating SS General Reinhard Heydrich (Detlef Bothe), Hitler’s third-in-command who became known as the “Butcher Of Prague.” Code named Operation: Anthropoid, Czechoslovakia’s UK-based army-in-exile air-dropped about nine men behind enemy lines to execute their tactical strike. Among the soldiers were Josef Gabcík (Cillian Murphy) and Jan Kubis (Jamie Dornan), the two men tasked with directly attacking Heydrich’s motorcade. This is the story of how a handful of undercover military men pulled off the most prolific assassination of a German official ever recorded, and their final stand when their religious safehouse found itself surrounded by enemy forces.
The significance of Anthropoid is undeniable. Patriotism and sacrifice ring the loudest, as the courageous paratroopers who re-entered a Nazi-run Czechoslovakia were essentially signing up to die. This is a time of sinister torture methods and cyanide capsules, both of which find their way into climactic moments of die-or-die-worse realizations. Gabcík, Kubis and their entire squad never stop fighting, which leads to a multi-hour shootout (only a couple minutes in movie years) ripe with action, desperation and a finality built on fearlessness. All the important history-book stuff happens before we reach the team’s church of no return, yet – undeniably- their holy shootout leaves the only lasting impression.
Herein lies the problem – all the time spent spying on Heydrich, working with resistance undergrounds and executing the assassination rarely registers a militaristic heartbeat. The story moves as slow as a German Howitzer, immediately delving into romantic asides and expected hiccups that prevent any actual assassinating from occurring too quickly. Like many historical recountings, it feels that Ellis is merely delaying the inevitable, and depressing the shit out of us along the way. Torture scene after torture scene, we’re reminded of the horrid atrocities callously carried out in the name of German pride, be it against men, women or children. Over and over the film beats a dead corpse to establish this nasty, snarling beast of a regime, yet with such a weak scripted heartbeat, we enter this uber-heavy eternity that sucks the life out of any room.
Themes of betrayal and survival plague most of the cast, as Karel Curda (Jirí Simek) contemplates exposing the freedom-fighting Czech spies so he can save his family. These were the decisions civilians faced, as German forces randomly exterminated entire villages after the assassination of Heydrich. As Josef and Jan inhabit the underground crypt of a church, their protectors are treated like human scum, and Ellis finds his most engaging dynamic of the whole film – would you sell out the lives of a few martyrs to save yourself? Citizens are promised amnesty if they come forward and out the mercenaries, and thus begins an inner-struggle inside some of the rebels who suddenly realize death is knocking at their doorstep.
Yet, Anthropoid still seems like it’s a tale etched in stone, neither timely nor wholly enlightening. Ellis flexes his directorial muscles once stakes are raised, and performances are all quite stellar (Murphy and Dornan strike a warrior’s chemistry, Toby Jones holds strong, Charlotte Le Bon and Anna Geislerová as female counterparts) – so why does this mission deliver such tedium? Because by the time we actually reach Heydrich’s fateful last drive, we’re ready for the end, not another thirty minutes of fighting.
Sure, the church shootout may be the film’s strongest segment, but it’s rendered helpless by a droll, expected previous three-quarters of espionage predictability, tonal breathlessness and little life besides a solider’s stern face. It may be an important footnote in WWII history, but in this form, Anthropoid doesn’t find the same cinematic importance.
Anthropoid is certainly an important historical bookmark, but its cinematic retelling fails to find that same credibility.