‘Anthropoid’ falls flat as historical WWII thriller

Cillian Murphy stars as parachutist Josef Gabcík in director Sean Ellis’ film ‘Anthropoid.’ Photo: James Lisle / Bleecker Street


“Anthropoid” sounds like the title of a science fiction movie but is in fact the title of a film about a secret World War II mission, code named “Operation Anthropoid,” to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, a high-ranking SS officer.

Heydrich, nicknamed “The Butcher of Prague,” was Hitler’s third-in-command and the main architect of the “Final Solution.” Heydrich had been put in charge of cracking down on rebellious Czechoslovakia, parts of which had been handed over to Nazi Germany by other European powers under the terms of the 1938 Munich agreement.

Irish actors Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan play Josef Gabcík and Jan Kubis, members of Czechoslovakia’s army-in-exile based in Great Britain and working with Resistance fighters opposing the Nazi occupation. In 1941, the pair parachute into their homeland to carry out the assassination of Heydrich. Things go wrong and vital equipment is lost in the parachute drop, but the pair decide to find a way to go forward with the mission with the help of the Czech underground. 

It is a great subject for a historical film, an inspiring and heroic true story that is little known. Unfortunately, the film does not quite live up to that potential. “Anthropoid” is plagued with problems despite a strong cast and a gripping final sequence.

Perhaps the biggest annoyance is that the film curiously waits until the end to give the audience much information about who Heydrich was. Director Sean Ellis co-wrote the script and also serves as director of photography, which may have been one too many jobs.

In addition, the film moves rather slowly, with predictable budding romances and dramatic, stiff maneuvering between more cautious and bolder figures in the resistance. Scenes are too often shot in a distracting, restless, handheld style, and the mostly British cast speaks in English with thick accents, presumably Czech, sometimes making dialogue hard to follow. 

Once the mission finally gets underway, the pace picks up, and the action explodes when the mission does not go as planned, sending resistance members scrambling and launching a tension-filled cat-and-mouse game with their Nazi pursuers. The story develops a thriller edge as the Nazis hunt the resistance and crack down further on Prague, the city where the whole story takes place.

The brutal actions of the Nazis, including torture and mass executions, and a final battle are searing stuff. The battle, fought in the lower level of an Eastern Orthodox Church, is shot in a realistic style, rather than the overblown, big-explosion Hollywood fashion, but the sequence is so intense it becomes nearly as jarring as a horror film.

As the film describes, the Nazis’ brutal response to the assassination included the murder of thousands of Czechs in an effort to get the citizens of Prague reveal the location of the resistant fighters involved in the assassination who were hiding among them. According to the film, the brutality of that response was one the factors that led Britain’s Winston Churchill to reject the Munich Agreement and ultimately to the Allies declaring war on Germany. However, the film does not mention that historical information until title cards roll at the end of the film. 

The film emphasizes Heydrich’s reputation for brutality, and notes that he was brought in as the leader of the Nazi forces in Czechoslovakia after the population rebelled against Nazi rule. However, it seems a bit odd that a film about the architect of the “Final Solution” includes so little about his anti-Semitism or the plight of the Jews. Most of that information appears in another series of title cards that are shown at the very end of the film.

The result is an uneven and ultimately unsatisfying film, despite the considerable efforts of the actors and a gripping, albeit brutal final sequence. The action scenes are strong and the relationships between the various characters are sometimes moving, although the romance elements seem contrived. 

“Anthropoid” is not a bad film, only a disappointing one, as this is a true story that could have been made into a much better movie.