By Bob Bloom
During World War II, two films were made that centered on the 1942 assassination of high-ranking SS official Reinhard Heydrich, the Reich Protector of Czechoslovakia, whose brutality earned him the infamous nickname of “The Butcher of Prague.”
Heydrich also was one of the main architects of the Final Solution, serving as chairman of the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, where the top Nazis determined how they would exterminate the entire European Jewish population.
Both films, “Hangmen Also Die,” directed by Fritz Lang, and “Hitler’s Madman,” directed by Douglas Sirk, were highly fictionalized versions of the actual events, stressing the oppression of the Czech people, as well as their resilience and determination to continue fighting the Nazis.
“Anthropoid” offers a truer account of the plan to assassinate Heydrich.
Two Czech soldiers, trained in London by British officials, parachute into their homeland in late December 1941. There, they meet up those left of the Czech resistance to get help in completing their mission.
From the outset, things go wrong. Their contact, provided by British intelligence, has been gone for months, so the men, Josef Gabcik (Cillian Murphy) and Jan Kubis (Jamie Dornan), must improvise and seek whatever help they can find.
“Anthropoid,” the name of the operation to kill Heydrich, is a movie filled with paranoia, double-dealing, betrayal and, most of all, heroism.
Gabcik and Kubis are not sure whom to trust, as they slowly and cautiously make contacts and begin planning to fulfill their mission.
Unlike many behind-the-lines World War II movies — classic and contemporary — “Anthropoid” is not one of those features in which all plans flow smoothly.
Yes, the assassination attempt does succeed — history tells us that. But it was a messy affair with many missteps.
Heydrich is severely wounded in the attack by a homemade grenade after Gabcik’s weapon jams.
The movie also shows the aftermath of the attack, as the SS uncovers, through brutal interrogations, the conspirators.
Another historical event, not portrayed in the pair of WWII propaganda movies, is the siege of Saints Cyril and Methodius Cathedral where Gabcik and Kubis, as well as five other Czech soldiers parachuted into the country, held off hundreds of German forces for several hours.
“Anthropoid” has its drawbacks, including a weak romantic subplot that really offers nothing to the proceedings, and a bit too much talk about the mission’s morality and justification.
Otherwise, the movie is a solid feature, with Murphy giving a strong performance as the soldier who will let nothing stand in the way of carrying out his mission, while Dornan is a conflicted conscript who lacks the stomach for the dirty business at hand.
On the upside, the movie does build tension and suspense as it moves toward its pivotal moment. The final half hour, detailing the siege at the cathedral, is rapid-fire action that is a well-suited counterpoint for earlier sequences.
“Anthropoid” is not a great movie, but it covers a brutal historical landmark event with sincerity and just a bit of Hollywood invention, which does not fully detract from the film’s overall impact.
Bloom is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. His reviews appear at ReelBob (reelbob.com) and Rottentomatoes (www.rottentomatoes.com). He also reviews Blu-rays and DVDs. He can be reached by email at email@example.com or on Twitter @ReelBobBloom.
2½ stars out of 4
(R), graphic violence, sexual situations, disturbing images