Watching Anthropoid, I felt astonished this particular part of World War II had not been told on film before. Then I discovered it had, in a film I confess I have not seen (1975’s Operation Daybreak). Either way, this account of the Czech resistance’s plan to assassinate third highest ranking Nazi official Reinhard Heydrich and its aftermath is a superbly gripping true story.
One gets a real sense for director Sean Ellis’s passion for the project, and his film is a real labour of love. It centres on resistance fighters Josef Gabcik (Cillian Murphy) and Jan Kubis (Jamie Dornan), covertly parachuted back into Czechoslovakia under orders from the exiled Czech government in London to contact what remains of the resistance and bring about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich (known as “The Butcher of Prague”, and also the main architect of the Final Solution). A suspenseful build-up ensues, along with two stand-out set pieces including the attack on Heydrich itself and the finale, which I won’t spoil for those unfamiliar with the facts.
Even if you know the history, the film is a riveting piece of drama for several reasons. Firstly the terrific performances, not just from Murphy and Dornan, but also from supporting cast members (including the always brilliant Toby Jones). Additionally Ellis and Anthony Frewin’s screenplay is fiercely uncompromising. There is heroism, yes, but at no point does the film overlook how resistance fighters were often frightened and panicked, in some cases enough to turn informer. Nor does this gloss over some of the appalling things the resistance had to do to achieve their goals, setting aside any hope for a normal life (glimmers of which are seen in relationships Josef and Jan experience with Marie Kovarnikova (Charlotte Le Bon) and Lenka Fafkova (Anna Geislerova), two girls they meet who help the resistance). As one character observes, war is not romantic.
Arguably, there are a couple of false steps. For instance, in the first few minutes I struggled with the accents a little, and there is a brief moment in the finale that I felt to be misjudged and out of place. Ultimately however, Anthropoid is a stirring and fitting and tribute to the courageous men and women who fought in this fascinating chapter of history. It is also a sobering, deeply human story that implicitly challenges the viewer as to what they might do faced with similar evil. Highly recommended.