History is still too often the story of “great men” and Sean Ellis’s new film Anthropoid, which had its UK premier at BFI Southbank last week, considers whether the removal of a key individual can really change the course of events. It’s an idea we tend to take for granted, certainly in public history, and it’s one that’s used to propel any kind of historical fiction, asking us where we would have been without the Winston Churchills, Henry VIIIs and Nelsons of the world. And of course, as Anthropoid demonstrates, the inverse is true, there are also a series of “bad men” of history whose removal it is supposed would prevent all kinds of disasters, wars and genocides.
As a society, we like to tell stories that suggest progress and these are often driven by quite black and white versions of who the heroes and villains are. But real life is far more complicated than that, and key individuals, whether good or bad, are often at the heart of a large network of activities which will continue to exist without them. At the crux of Anthropoid is a debate about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, one of the architects of the Nazi final solution, with a reputation so fearsome he earned the soubriquet ‘the butcher of Prague’ and whether removing him would release or further enslave the citizens of Czechoslovakia.
Two soldiers, played by Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan, are parachuted into a forest on the outskirts of Prague at the start of the film with orders from the exiled Czech government in London to kill Heydrich. They are met and welcomed into the local underground resistance led by the wonderful Toby Jones, who are initially unaware of their secret mission, but help the men to integrate into Czech society, giving them a family to lodge with, jobs and even fake girlfriends as part of their cover.
There have been a number of poor reviews which largely hinge on the slightly misconceived notion that this a straightforward thriller in the style of Tom Cruise’s Valkyrie, which took a more ‘Mission Impossible’ approach to a botched assassination attempt of Hitler. But while the content and setting of Anthropoid draws obvious comparisons, Sean Ellis – who wrote, directed and acted as cinematographer – is aiming at something slightly different, with the big action scenes serving only to punctuate a taut exploration of a much wider organisation. While the assassination attempt is the film’s core driver, its purpose is to understand the context in which such a plan came about and the emotional and physical costs to the extended network of men and women it affected.
The first hour is entirely concerned with these preparations as Jan (Dornan) and Josef (Murphy) scout locations, secretly photograph Heydrich’s route to work and spy on his daily routine. It is pure character study as the two men begin to come to terms with the task they have to perform. For interest, Ellis has given them contrasting personalities, and during the Q&A that followed last week’s showing, explained that while his background research was extensive, such aspects of character are hard to know which gives the actors plenty of artistic licence.
Murphy’s Josef is the more serious and soldierly of the two, given a direct order that he doesn’t question and leads the scientific process of deciding how and when to strike. He is acutely aware at all times of the dangerous position they’re in, trying to blend into a tightly-wound society while keeping his emotions in check. But there’s also a paternal element to his character which Murphy brings out quite subtly in the protection of the weaker Jan from the full horror of their exposed position and maintain motivation despite objections from other resistance fighters. One point of ambiguity however is the relationship he forms with Lenka (Anna Geislerová) which he initially resists and sees only in terms of fulfilling his cover story. You’re supposed to believe he then falls for her, so as Ellis explained as the film plays out the two leads almost swap character traits, with Josef becoming softer. Some ambiguity is fine, but the idea that he suddenly melts was not entirely convincing, as Murphy’s performance is so restrained it seemed more likely that he respects Lenka for the danger she puts herself in for his sake and sees someone matching his level of sacrifice, but doesn’t actually fall in love with her.
Dornan on the other hand plays a character whose emotions are much closer to the surface and falls quickly in love with Marie (Charlotte Le Bon). Without any back-story, it’s hard to know what previous role Jan had that got him selected for this mission because he responds quite badly to combat pressure, certainly in the first half of the film as his hands shake when he tries to fire, and Josef has to calm him during panic attacks. Dornan does all of this pretty well and audiences will find his warmer character engaging, but it’s a bit hard to believe he would have been chosen for such a specialist and highly significant mission. What is interesting, however, is seeing his confidence grow in the second half of the film as the fall-out from the assassination leads to a siege that separates the two leads, and here Jan demonstrates more considerable military poise, strategy and bravery under pressure than expected.
Ellis is wearing a lot of hats in this production and some fit a little better than others. Given his photography background understandably the cinematography is very striking. Using Super 16mm film it has both a period and punchy feel which adds to the drama of the action scenes while underscoring the more introspective moments. At the Q&A, Ellis talked about recreating shots of Prague from wartime photographs and, because the city has changed, using digital effects to subsequently recreate some of their atmosphere. The linking shots are some of the best seen in a war film with noticeably beautiful images of Prague enveloped in haze and cloud standing out.
It’s clear how much research Ellis has done and this project has taken several years to come to fruition, so the balance of introspective and high action moments actually work quite well. If you don’t go to this expecting a thriller as several critics appear to have, then you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the intricacies of the wider story. However, while the writing is largely pretty good, it feels overlong because the central assassination takes a while to occur and although the groundwork for that is interesting, it’s in the audiences mind as the main event, so some of the subsidiary stories around the romance and resistance in-fighting feel like distractions.
Most of the other characters are also too thinly drawn to add much to the plot or to create much investment in their cause, with the excellent Toby Jones essentially wasted in a small role as the group leader. There is clearly a huge amount of politics between the on-the-ground resistance and that directed from the relative safety of London, so more suspicion of the two parachutists and their motives for doing this would have added texture, particularly in the first hour rather than focusing on the somewhat dreary love interests.
One of the most interesting aspects of this film is actually seeing the consequences of their actions play out, which links back to this crucial underlying question of whether removing one key person from history really changes anything. The rapid escalation of violence after the assassination, the brutal torture and efficient round-up of the extended network and how this act was utilised to justify further bloody incursions into Czechoslovakia implies that the costs and consequences were far higher than the resistance had prepared for. Try watching this in a double bill with the excellent Conspiracy a BBC film from 2001 with Kenneth Branagh as a chilling Heydrich at the Wannsee Conference and this may alter your perspective. Anthropoid leaves you to decide whether the removal of “bad men” would significantly change the course of history, but it undoubtedly highlights the real bravery and heroism of the small group of people who tried.
Anthropoid was premiered at the BFI Southbank with Q&A. It opens in cinemas nationwide on Friday 9 September. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1