The names Josef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš may not mean anything to you, but they represent patriotism at its finest for the people of the Czech Republic. And once you see the Sean Ellis-directed Anthropoid, you’ll know exactly why.
Co-written by Anthony Frewin, the WWII thriller tells the true story of the aforementioned Gabčík and Kubiš, played by Irish stars Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan, respectively. The British-trained Czech parachutists were among a group of men sent on a secret mission, titled Operation Anthropoid, to assassinate SS General Reinhard Heydrich.
The Reich’s third in command after Hitler and Himmler, Heydrich brought a reign of terror to the former Czechoslovakia that earned him the title of “The Butcher of Prague.” Gabčík and Kubiš’ heroism may have made them legends, but it is their personal and internal struggles that audiences will be able to connect to: Murphy’s Gabčík is the more detached and mission-driven soldier, while Dornan’s Kubiš is less stoic and longs for a normal life.
Rounded out by an international cast of Canadian, English and Czech actors (including Charlotte Le Bon, Toby Jones and Anna Geislerová), Anthropoid is a riveting story that reminds audiences about the strength and endurance of the human spirit during a time of war.
Ahead of the film’s release, I had the opportunity to speak with one of its leading men, Peaky Blinders star Cillian Murphy. We spoke in depth about honouring the stories of the Czech resistance, preparing for the role of a real-life hero, and diving back into one of the most horrific wars in history.
Check it out below, and enjoy!
For many people, including myself, this film is their introduction into Operation Anthropoid and the stories of these Czech patriots. How familiar were you with the story beforehand?
Cillian Murphy: I was kind of like yourself. I was completely ignorant of it, so it was an introduction to me. But luckily our writer-director, Sean Ellis, lived with this project for upwards of ten years. He has amassed a huge amount of research over the years, and he passed them on to me and Jamie [Dornan], so we were able to dive into that.
What was the reason that you wanted to join this project? Was there a certain factor?
Cillian Murphy: No, I mean, for me, it always starts with the writing, and then it’s the director and it’s who you’re going to be working with. All of those to me were very, very appealing. And as you mentioned, your director has over a decade’s worth of research behind this film. And while research is vital, it’s also ultimately limited. Storytellers still have to fill in the blanks with their own imaginations.
What resources did you have to inform your character and performance?
Cillian Murphy: Look, you just kind of answered the question yourself there. We did all of the research that you would expect ‘cause these are real people, they existed. You know, a sense of duty, a sense of responsibility. But then ultimately the script becomes your primary document. We’re not making a documentary here; we’re making a piece of cinema. You can take liberties, and you can bend the truth. People mustn’t look for this if they’re looking for absolute fact. This is a piece of entertainment.
So would you say emotional truth is more important than factual truth when it comes to these type of films?
Cillian Murphy: Sure. I mean, that’s why there’s these films and that’s why there’s documentaries. For me, a feature film is about eliciting emotions. It’s about making you feel altered from when you entered the theater to when you come out; that’s what it should be about. It’s not there to give you by rote of what happened. It’s a piece of entertainment. If it then encourages people to go and read up about it, if it encourages people to investigate more, then great. But it’s not supposed to be prescriptive by any means.
Thankfully, most of us will never face an extreme situation like Josef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš, but we can still relate to them as characters when we watch the film.
So I was reading one of the interviews with Jamie [Dornan] and he said that he felt the closest to Jan compared to any other role that he’s ever played. I was wondering if you were able to identify with your character — any aspects of his personality.
Cillian Murphy: Sure. I mean, I think he’s a far braver, heroic man than I am, that’s for sure. What I really admired about him was the courage of his conviction. He sort of had this kind of myopic point of view, which was like, “I can only think as far as the mission, and then after that I can’t think about it,” whereas Jan is more sort of self aware, dwelling on what will happen afterwards.
It’s only towards the very end of the movie where you see Josef, where you see that emotional relief, and I like that in cinema. I like when you hold back the emotion and then finally you see, underneath that strong exterior that he has, you see that he’s kind of vulnerable as the rest of us.
So I understand that the film was shot in Prague, and many of your cast members were from the Czech Republic. What other ways did you immerse yourself into the culture and history?
Cillian Murphy: I mean, just by virtue of shooting in Prague, it naturally helps the process. We shot in many of the real locations and that church where the siege happened at the end — we visited that church. We saw the real bullet holes, we saw the real hand grenades, the hand grenades had landed. We got a tour of the whole church, and were given great insight into it, and you feel profoundly moved. You can’t help but feel profoundly moved. I think that, by osmosis, affects how you invest in the character.
As you mentioned, you were there in the actual places where this took place. Did you feel any kind of pressure, knowing that you had to represent this part of history and these people to the world?
Cillian Murphy: Yes, of course. It’s less pressure, but more responsibility. You want to do it correctly. You want to honour these men and these women and particularly all of the men and women that died in the reprisals. So yes, it weighs heavily on you.
Were any of your perceptions about the war challenged while making this film?
Cillian Murphy: It’s an interesting question. I mean, you know, for me, just dwelling on this, it seems to me that the Second World War was perhaps, arguably, the last just war. It was very clear-cut sort of good and evil. If you lay it out, there’s nobody really going to take sides with the Third Reich and people are generally going to take sides with the Allies, you know what I mean?
So that’s why I think it’s attractive to filmmakers and storytellers because there’s a very clear-cut good and evil. Now, however, saying that, taking a man’s life is something that is appalling to all of us — taking any life is obviously appalling to all of us — so it’s very sketchy territory there, you know what I mean? But I do think that’s why we’re so fascinated with the Second World War. It’s because it felt like a just war, it felt like a right thing to do. And, you know, this man, [Reinhard] Heydrich, was a monster. He was the architect of the Final Solution, so it does make you ask questions of yourself: Would you be brave enough to go through with something like that? I don’t know.
And as you mentioned, this war resonates so much with storytellers and artists today. Did you have a fascination with this war prior to this film, or was it something you got to investigate while you were preparing for it?
Cillian Murphy: No, not particularly. I just read fiction. I don’t read history. I only read novels. But it happens I am making a film right now — it’s Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk — so, you know, it just happens to be two good stories. It just happened to come along coincidentally.
And speaking of Dunkirk, I recently saw the teaser trailer… Is there anything you can tell us about it, or are they keeping your lips sealed on that?
Cillian Murphy: Nah, man. For me, the reason that the word spoiler is a spoiler is ‘cause it’s a spoiler. So you’ll find out next year. Everybody knows what happened in Dunkirk… But, you know, it’s Christopher Nolan. It should be very, very special.
That concludes our interview, but be sure to check out Anthropoid as it’s now playing in theatres everywhere!