My mother was born in Slovakia and I grew up on stories. How beautiful her village was, of course. But stories of overwhelming ugliness, too. Munich, like Yalta, was an obscene word in our household. In 1938, long after Hitler had revealed that he was a rabid dog needing to be put down, the West surrendered Czechoslovakia to Hitler without firing one bullet. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, the man with an umbrella, called the Munich agreement "peace for our time." One of the many reasons so few Eastern Europeans are Anglophiles.
My mother taught me about Lidice, a Czech village that, with its inhabitants, had been wiped off the face of the earth by the Nazis. The men shot, the women and children murdered more slowly, the houses razed to the ground. In fact the Nazis wiped out hundreds of villages in Poland and Czechoslovakia.
"Anthropoid" is a Hollywood movie that, at long last, tells some of the war from the point of view of desperate Czechs and Slovaks fighting the Nazis. Fanboys gripe, "How many World War II movies can you make?" One answer: chronicling of World War II will not be complete as long as major stories like Operation Anthropoid remain untold. Reinhard Heydrich was one of the worst human beings who ever lived. He chaired the Wannsee Conference that formalized the Final Solution, the Nazi plan to murder all Jews. He was also in charge of the Czech Republic. He brutalized the population and wiped out the resistance in short order.
Heydrich was the only top Nazi to be assassinated, although there were assassination plots against others, significantly Hitler himself. People need to know that non-Jews, as well as Jews, suffered under the Nazis. People need to know of the incredible courage and heroism of forgotten heroes who fought the Nazis. The questions of an operation like Anthropoid remain open. Is it ethical, and is it militarily strategic, to assassinate one of history's worst humans if you know that thousands of innocent people will be murdered in retaliation?
"Anthropoid" opens with two resistance fighers, Jan Kubis a Czech (Jamie Dornan) and Jozef Gabcik, a Slovak (Cillian Murphy), being parachuted into Czechoslovakia after their training in England. They must find the tiny remnants of the surviving underground and announce their assassination plan. Resistance members Ladislav Vanek (Marcin Dorocinski) and Uncle Hajsky (Toby Jones) are not immediately enthusiastic. They recognize the risks of retaliatory mass killings. They understand that this assassination may be more of a means of bringing respect to the Czechoslovak government in exile in London under Edvard Benes.
"Anthropoid" is a tense, gripping, film noir-ish film. I was on the edge of my seat the entire time, and I cried at the end. For hours afterward I was haunted by the film.
It's not for nothing that Steven Spielberg chose to make a glamorous, powerful, heroic, high-living member of the Nazi party the subject of his "Schindler's List." It's hard for a storyteller to tell the audience a story that has no triumphant moments, lots of death, and an ending that most filmgoers will already know.
"Anthropoid" consists largely of very tight shots on the faces of its two assassins as they live in Nazi-occupied Prague, trying to figure out a way to fulfill their mission. Scenes are dimly lit. Everyone is tense. There is little laughter or smiling. There is zero swaggering. There is a very brief moment toward the end that offers a hint of redemption. If you see the film, you will know what I'm talking about. The scene involves water, light, and a beautiful woman reaching out her hand.
The film does not take in the grand sweep of history. There are no shots of London headquarters, no fetishizing of squeaky Nazi boots or Hugo Boss uniforms. Lidice is mentioned in such an understated manner that filmgoers unfamiliar with it won't know what has been said.
"Anthropoid" offers an almost documentary look at what it is to be an assassin in a totalitarian regime. It's not fun. I was at first dubious when I heard that Cillian Murphy would be playing Jozef Gabcik. I wished for a Slovak actor. Murphy's performance is the emotional and aesthetic heart of the film. Murphy rarely allows any emotion to register on his face. He has turned himself into a killing machine. When, at a certain moment, a tear falls from his eye, that tear carries great weight. The audience knows what a courageous professional this man is.
My mother told me about Jan Kubis and Jozef Gabcik. When I have gone through tough times in my own life, I have used men like them to inspire me. How can I complain, when they went through so much worse? How can I give up, when they never did, through a six-hour shootout with Nazis who massively outgunned and outmanned them? How can I fail to take risks to fight evil, when a Slovak just like me managed to send to hell a man who seems to have emerged from its most fetid depths? "Anthropoid" is not a fun movie, but I'm glad I saw it. It brings me closer to the heroes it honors.