‘Anthropoid’ doubles as a WWII thriller and an important Czech history lesson
Director: Sean Ellis
Writers: Sean Ellis and Anthony Frewin
Starring: Cillian Murphy, Jaime Dornan, Toby Jones, Charlotte Le Bon, Anna Geislerova, and Alena Mihulova
“Anthropoid” - “No one need think that the world can be ruled without blood. The civil sword shall and must be red and bloody.” – Andrew Jackson
Jackson’s disconcerting comment about ruling unfortunately tends to prove true, because foreign nations – generally speaking - primarily use force to control a sovereign neighbor, and we have seen – and read about - way too many examples of this throughout human history. Conversely, the conquered people can carry disdain for their occupiers, so blood can flow in both directions. After Germany occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939, the SS ruled with an iron fist, and soon Reinhard Heydrich – the main architect of The Final Solution - ran operations on the ground.
In director Sean Ellis’ “Anthropoid”, he throws the audience into the middle of this conflict between the Germans and the Czech resistance, but his film is not a battlefront war movie in which armies are pummeling one another for two hours. Instead, it is a real-life spy thriller, and the name Anthropoid refers to a specific, secret Czech mission. Rather than creating a flashy, Hollywood-like production like “Valkyrie” (2008), this movie’s tenor and mood feel like the excellent British war picture, “’71” (2015). Ellis’ film lives and breathes in gritty and earthy tones and captures many important personal moments of despair and worry among the Czech people that make it an affecting experience.
Josef Gabcik (Cillian Murphy) and Jan Kubis (Jamie Dornan) are soldiers in the Czech army, and they parachute into the country in December 1941 to meet the resistance and help enact Operation Anthropoid. Josef and Jan both carry serious mindsets, and rightly so, with German soldiers standing on seemingly every Prague street corner with guns in hand, and the Czech resistance fighters hidden amongst the populace. Ellis’ camera enters ordinary living rooms and concealed backrooms in public cafes where resistance organizers and fighters regularly rap secret knocks and speak in whispers in order operate unseen and unheard by German troops.
During the movie’s first hour, it lays quiet and intense groundwork. As Josef and Jan settle into their new environment, they develop working relationships with Hajsky (Toby Jones), Mrs. Moravec (Alena Mihulova) and Karel (Jiri Simek) and romantic ones with Lenka (Anna Geislerova) and Marie (Charlotte Le Bon), respectively. By and large, the film’s first half is “mostly free” from violence while careful planning takes center stage, but not everyone in the resistance is in agreement with actually carrying out Operation Anthropoid.
Heydrich, also known as The Butcher of Prague, executed 5,000 Czech prisoners as one of his first acts in the country, and some worry about a ferocious Nazi retaliation to Anthropoid. Will the Germans wipe Czechoslovakia off the map? This internal debate raises the stakes and churn while Josef and Jan move forward with their mission. Murphy and Dornan are very convincing as soldiers, and while Murphy’s Josef is a cool customer with a frequent smoke always close by, Dornan’s Jan sometimes wavers in spirit and carries anxiety over actually pulling the trigger on anyone. This dynamic also leaves the audience to wonder how Anthropoid will pan out.
Interestingly, “Anthropoid” really becomes a tale of two pictures: before the mission and after the mission. Beforehand, the promise of danger is close, and afterwards, it appears in brutally visual ways, including a long, extended climax, instead of a restrained denouement. The film turns into a more familiar urban warfare battle, and Josef, Jan and other young fighters are thrown into a visceral and gripping conflict that generates vigorous hand-wringing. It reminded me of a smaller-scale Ramelle clash in “Saving Private Ryan” (1998), and the impact is felt on-screen and off-screen.
“Anthropoid” is superbly acted, shot and written, and Ellis delivers an exceptional war picture that doubles as a gripping thriller and an important Czech history lesson, as Murphy, Dornan, Jones, Mihulova, Geislerova, Le Bon, and others put faces on the Czech people who lived through the period. Operation Anthropoid may not be regularly reiterated in American schools and textbooks, but it is an eternally-critical moment for the Czech Republic. This film boldly captures this difficult, tragic and heroic time in the country’s collective memoir and is another reminder that Jackson’s reference to the civil sword is, in fact, red and bloody.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.