In this age of wall-to-wall summer action blockbusters and the multiple temptations to entertain ourselves at home for cheap, we have a hard time getting out there to see and support the obscure, scrappy little films whenever they air in the precious few local theaters that bother to screen them. On rare occasion my wife and I will find spare moments to make the long trek to the one art-house theater on the opposite side of Indianapolis if something tempts us on a not-so-busy weekend. Nine out of every ten experiences have ranged from pleasant to surprising to thrilling.
It’s been a while since we’ve run up against that tenth out of ten films. As soon as it opened here in town, we made an appointment with Anthropoid because films about World War II are usually her cup of tea. This time, not so much.
Short version for the unfamiliar: Based on the true WWII story of the attempted assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi bigwig largely in charge of overseeing oppression in Czechoslovakia. From their London exile, the remnants of the Czech government ordered two men back to their homeland, Josef Gabcik and Jan Kubis, to oversee Operation Anthropoid. Heydrich’s death obviously wouldn’t win the war, restore human rights, or make much of a dent in the European theater, but it would send a defiant message to Berlin: that their people would never give up the fight.
Enter our heroes: Cillian Murphy, done with the Dark Knight trilogy, and Jamie Dornan, signed on for who knows how many 50 Shades sequels. These two veterans of box-office smashes join forces to steer this History Channel simulation toward a more marketable respectability, provided they can figure out which countrymen are on their side, which ones will betray them to the enemy, and how to make the most of the shoddy weapons they’re given.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Anthropoid features three women in prominent roles — one who can disassemble a pistol as proof of independence, but doesn’t get to shoot anyone; one kindly mother who clearly won’t stay unscathed for long; and Charlotte Le Bon from Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk as girlfriend material.
Also from the world of big-budget blockbusters: Toby Jones (Arnim Zola from the Captain America movies) as the sagely member of Our Heroes’ ragtag rebel alliance; and the kid who played young Magneto in X-Men: First Class as a fragile violinist whose mother loves him very much and she’s so super proud of him and you can almost read his grim fate printed in blinking Comic Sans on his forehead.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Time for history class! It’s not an oft-told tale, but this mission in reality was a remarkable instance of a people willing to stand together in the face of oppression and imminent annihilation. Also, sheltered viewers will learn the vital life lesson that Nazis Are Bad.
Each hero has his own issues to overcome, though not every issue is equally paralyzing. Murphy’s single-minded dedication to the task at hand makes it hard for him to chill out and occasionally be nice to others. When he does, he ends up regretting it anyway, so I’m not sure he learned anything. Dornan struggles whenever he’s forced to shoot Nazi sympathizers in his country even when his life is in danger, but by the time we arrive at the climactic battle sequence, he’s a few extra guns away from achieving level Rambo. So he learns that when your back’s against the wall, you can find it within yourself to overcome your fear of killing and turn into an action hero.
Nitpicking? Although Kubis and/or Gabcik are in nearly every scene, we don’t learn much about either of them beyond their military skills. Heydrich himself is kept offstage except for the centerpiece assassination attempt sequence. Otherwise, most of the movie is Czechs in tiny apartments and dingy backrooms arguing over whether or not the mission is real, whether or not it should be carried out, whether they’re prepared as a country to withstand the fire that Hitler & Company will rain upon them if they pull it off, and so on. Fans of Czech moral and ethical debates should be pleased.
Unfortunately all those arguments in all those nooks and crannies make for severely claustrophobic settings, as if soundstages were so prohibitively expensive that they filmed most scenes inside a large warehouse crate or a borrowed laundry room. Everyone and everything is cramped, up to and including that wall-free, outdoor firefight, which commences without a single scene-setting wide shot to establish place, space, or any sense of direction. When bullets fly and bodies run, it’s a meaningless mess of random gunshots and angry faces. I was looking forward to a rare instance of a movie shot in Prague that’s actually set in Prague, and thereby showing off that exotic, antique architecture. A few square feet make it into frames, but most of it is so crowded out that they might as well have performed in a Vancouver furniture store.
Anyone who appreciates trigger warnings may recoil at a couple of scenes of Nazi sadism — one a disturbing torture session; the other a swift, brutal shock that evoked loud gasps from numerous women in our audience. The blow would almost come off as sexist if it weren’t a Nazi dealing the blow, in which case you figure what you just saw was a thing that would really happen in WWII, but somehow that doesn’t make it okay.
Scant words of opening text attempt to catch up viewers with where things stand in Europe at the time, but my wife disagreed with some of the verbiage that may not have accurately captured England’s acquiescence to Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland, which served as mere prologue for takeover of the entire country. But neither of us can remember the exact wording problem — me, because history isn’t my forte; her, because she ultimately declared the movie “boring” (an exceedingly rare comment on her part, and a cardinal sin in her historical dramas) and is no longer interested in retaining or reliving much of it.
All of these problems take a back seat to Anthropoid‘s fatal flaw: that name. Sure, it’s historically accurate and worked into the dialogue exactly once, but if you weren’t familiar with it in the first place, it sounds like an extra-cheesy MST3K episode. Submitted for your approval or for the DVD manufacturers’ consideration are the following helpful suggestions for titles that would be better for this film than Anthropoid:
Get Reich or Die Tryin’
As You Reich It
Valkyrie II: The Other One
The Assassination of Reinhard Heydrich by the Czech Jan Kubis
Reinhard with a Vengeance
Live Free or Reinhard
A Good Day to Reinhard
Czech and Mate
Prague Day Afternoon
Godzilla vs. Anthropoid
So what’s to like? The movie ends not with the clumsy assassination, but with a much roomier, more thrilling shootout at a local church, where in reality our heroic survivors holed up and held off dozens of Nazi soldiers for hours before they were overrun. That set piece hits all the right marks but deserved a better lead-in.
If dry history isn’t your thing, Anthropoid‘s most redeeming feature is Cillian Murphy. While his pal Dornan frets and frowns, Murphy’s intensity and brief smoldering moments bring gravity to the proceedings and overpower anyone who can’t keep up with him. Duty and country drive him a certain stoic distance, but when the team hits a few grave hitches in the assignment, his guilt and regret are among the few vivid reminders of the emotional tolls taken on life during wartime.
And as the credits draw near, someone recalled all those funky lighting effects at the end of Sunshine and decided Murphy’s final moments here deserve some creative photography too. A few extra bulbs added here and there are cranked up to maximum wattage for a beatific halo effect to accompany the swelling soundtrack that announces the Moral of the Story to the viewers: this incident may not have had a happy ending, but the sacrifices of these sturdy patriots helped pave the road to victory! Thank you all for coming, let’s give Cillian a hand, and would everyone please focus on how cool he looks and not on those last two hours of bickering in beige broom closets.
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Anthropoid end credits, which confused me at one point with one cast credit listed as “Vaclav Marek and his Blue Star”. I looked it up and learned they’re a Czech swing band that plays during one tense dance-party sequence. At first glance I thought it was just one eccentric actor with a military background who insisted his favorite medal should share his billing. Makes more sense now.