Revisiting old classics, discovering hidden gems and exploring the contemporary movie scene: every month, Kafkadesk’s CineClub brings you new insights and expert film reviews of the greatest treasures of Central European cinema. This week: the Czech-British-French war epic Anthropoid (2016), directed by Sean Ellis.
Every now and then, two films come out around the same time that are basically about the same thing – Twilight and Let the Right One In; Deep Impact and Armageddon; Crowhurst and The Mercy. A few years ago, there was a mesmerising, sensual, artful examination of a kinky sub-dom relationship. It was called The Duke of Burgundy, and Jamie Dornan wasn’t in it. He starred in the other one, Fifty Shades of something.
An unconvincing rendering of Operation Anthropoid
Then we had two films released within a few months of each other about the valiant Czechoslovak parachutists who assassinated Hitler’s third in command, Reinhard Heydrich. First out of the gate was Anthropoid, starring Dornan and Cillian Murphy, followed by HHhH (aka The Man with the Iron Heart), an adaptation of Laurent Binet’s well-received novel. Would Dornan be in the better movie of the two this time around?
Any film about this subject is bound to be compared to Binet’s terrific book, which managed the tricky task of making a historic event genuinely suspenseful and exciting. The book had scope, compassion and a lightness of touch, and the chapters covering the assassination and the parachutist’s last stand in a Prague cathedral flew past so quickly that I left burn marks on the pages. It is a fantastic story that deserves a modern re-telling (although maybe not twice in the space of a year), and I dearly hoped that Anthropoid would do justice to the tale.
The first half is pretty stodgy stuff. A few pre-title notes remind us how awful the Nazis were, then we hook up with our heroes Jozef Gabčík (Murphy) and Jan Kubiš (Dornan) immediately after they parachute into a snowy forest not far from Prague. After surviving an encounter with some local traitors, they make their way to the capital where they make contacts, act suspiciously, try on their dodgy Czech accents, meet their obligatory love interests, and ploddingly plot their assassination attempt.
The assassination itself is well handled, although we’re never given much of a look at Heydrich beforehand to know who our boys are shooting at. It’s a brief, shattering burst of violence that instantly breathes life into the film. Unfortunately, it is the sole highlight and there’s still about an hour to go.
Director Sean Ellis loses all control of the material in the second half. The story flatlines again until the final showdown in the cathedral, and we spend countless scenes watching people in brown clothes arguing in brown rooms, shot through a brown filter. It’s jumbled and tiring, especially since Ellis forgets to turn off the wobbly cam he employed during the assassination. That method is fine for action when well handled, but during talking scenes, it’s like he stuck a GoPro camera on a chimp’s head and let it wander around among the actors.
The final shootout is the biggest disappointment. Binet’s book handled it masterfully; while never in doubt that the assassins were trapped and outgunned, the last pages of HHhH felt like our heroes’ final seconds slipping away. The author put us right alongside them as they held their nerve, conserved their dwindling ammunition, carefully picked their shots, and made one last desperate escape bid.
Remembering the heroes of the Heydrich assassination
Here, it just becomes a generic action sequence, a bunch of good-looking actors mowing down swathes of faceless Nazi goons until it is time for the credits to roll. It’s loud and boring, and Ellis opts for an ancient Hollywood tear-jerking trope in the final moments. It has an air of desperation about it, and I wanted to throw my chair at the screen.
Anthropoid was co-written by Ellis, and he never seems to trust the plain facts of the suicide mission to be interesting enough, resorting to littering the film with tired old war movie cliches. He doesn’t trust the audience’s intelligence either. In a quiet moment before the final siege, one of Gabčík’s buddies tries to lift his spirits with a well-chosen quote from the books he’s reading, Julius Caesar. After a beat, the guy says helpfully: “Shakespeare.” – thanks, is that Shakespeare with three Es? He sounds pretty good, maybe I’ll check out some of his stuff.
There are some positives. Jamie Dornan isn’t the worst thing about Anthropoid and is far better here than he was in Fifty Shades of Grey. Unfortunately, he’s not much of a screen presence and the script gives him most of the emotional heavy lifting, material that requires a more capable actor. Someone like Cillian Murphy, whose million-mile stare is well suited to a resolute man determined to accomplish his task, grimly aware of his fate.
The assassination of Heydrich is an incredible story and the brave paratroopers who pulled it off deserve a great movie to tell it. Unfortunately Anthropoid isn’t it.
By Lee Adams
Lee is a writer and film critic living in Brno, Czech Republic. He studied film at university but dropped out halfway through because his tutor was always skiving off. He spent the next two decades using his half-education to passionately consume and write about movies. He has written for several outlets across the web, including the late-lamented Way Too Indie. In 2018 he founded Czech Film Review, approaching the cinema of his adopted home country from the perspective of a knowledgeable outsider.