“Anthropoid” is a historical thriller about the efforts of a handful of Czechs to kill the murderous Nazi overlord of their country during World War II.
It’s a riveting story artfully told, a magnificent movie about brave men undertaking a suicidal, possibly futile mission which they knew would have dire consequences for themselves and untold thousands of their countrymen.
Cillian Murphy of “Peaky Blinders” and Jamie Dornan of “Fifty Shades of Grey” play two Czech expats air-dropped into their homeland in December of 1941. They must evade capture by Germans or Czech collaborators and make contact with the Czech resistance — what’s left of it, anyway.
“What is your mission?” one of the last living resistance leaders (Toby Jones) asks.
And what is that? Well, it’s the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, one of the top men in the Third Reich, assigned by Hitler to pacify the Czechs after the Allies ceded the country to Germany in the most infamous act of appeasement leading up to the war.
Heydrich, “The Butcher of Prague,” must die. It’s not murder, it’s an assassination, operation leader Josef Gabcík (Murphy) reminds one and all. “‘Murder’ implies he has a life worth living.”
He and his team will kill Heydrich with no real escape plan of their own. They’ll do it even though their country will pay an awful price, because the Allies need to be convinced the Czechs, whom they sold out three scant years before, “will fight” and will fight on the same side.
There’s a futility and fatalism about it all which Murphy and Dornan play just below the surface, men who (mostly) don’t allow themselves to think too far into the future. Some reviewers have criticized performances that are, like the men the actors are portraying, tentative. But that is how they should be played. Every moment of great courage is balanced against one of incredulous fear. At times, Jan (Dornan) cannot actually believe he is going through with this, a sane man’s reaction to an insane demand placed upon a very young man.
The script, by co-writer/director Sean Ellis (“Cashback”) and Anthony Frewin (“Color Me Kubrick”) captures the loose planning and the massive effort it takes just to gather intel on Heydrich’s habits, just to blend into Prague.
They take on girlfriends (Charlotte Le Bon of “The 100 Foot Journey” and the wonderful Czech actress Anna Geislerova), women who have only the vaguest idea of just what will be asked of them.
And they wait.
Ellis, who also served as director of photography, filmed this in the muted browns of a faded color photograph. This is a memory painfully recalled, with all the dread the colors, the music and the paranoid twitchiness of one and all hanging over it like doom itself.
He stages the historic ambush with brio, capturing the confusion and the collateral damage that but scratches the surface of the bloody price that will be paid with this attempt. And as the aftermath explodes, he has the presence of mind to film the first interrogation focused on the head and shoulders of the Gestapo interrogator. More explicit torture follows.
Nobody living through history, the great American historian David McCullough is fond of saying, “knows how things will turn out.” But these brave men and women had a pretty good idea. Mass executions, nationwide reprisals. Some will find new inner resolve, others will crumble, and we don’t know who will take which path.
No, they didn’t know these Allies they were trying to impress, the very folks who sold them up the Moldau in 1938, would allow Russo-Soviet domination of Czechoslovakia after the war for another 40 oppressive years.
But it is the triumph of “Anthropoid,” one of the best pictures of the year and the best movie of the summer, that we believe it wouldn’t have made a difference.
They weren’t killing by remote control drone strike or assassinating out of vengeance. They were facing the ultimate sacrifice like the flawed human beings we all are, and that was the true measure of their heroism.
MPAA Rating: R for violence and some disturbing images
Cast: Cillian Murphy, Jamie Dornan, Charlotte Le Bon, Toby Jones, Anna Geislerová
Credits: Directed by Sean Ellis, script by Sean Ellis and Anthony Frewin. A Bleecker Street release.
Running time: 2:00