For all intents and purposes, from March 15, 1939, until May 8, 1945, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic) was under occupation by Nazi, German forces. The SS (Schutzstaffel), a paramilitary organization within the German army that, amongst other grisly tasks: controlled the police force; operated the concentration camps; and were at the forefront of capturing, demoralizing, and killing, any Czech citizen who was a member of the resistance. In England, a Czechoslovakian government in absentia, encouraged the remaining members of the resistance not to give up, that a plan was being worked on. In 1941, the catalyst of a daring mission, that would come to be known as ‘Operation Anthropoid,’ began.
Jan Kubis, played by BAFTA nominated actor Jamie Dornan (The Fall), and Jozef Gabčík, portrayed by Golden Globe nominee Cillian Murphy (Breakfast on Pluto), are two exiled Czech resistance fighters. They were fortunate enough to be able to escape to England prior to German occupation. Tasked with carrying out a seemingly impossible mission, they parachute back into Czechoslovakia to put the plan in motion. The operation doesn’t get off to a good start, as Josef gets his foot cut up by tree branches, and needs medical attention; given the danger of their presence in the country, his foot will have to be attended to by a veterinarian, Dr. Eduard (Sean Mahon). Additionally, before their mission even gets a chance to commence, they are almost given up by two Czech traitors looking to curry favor with the Nazis. If not for some quick thinking on Josef’s part, the operation would’ve ended before it even had a chance to begin. The perilous mission Jan and Josef have been given, is the assassination of SS-Obergruppenführer, Reinhard Heydrich, who at that point in history, was the third highest ranking Nazi in the world. Heydrich was given the nick name ‘The Blonde Beast,’ by his fellow Nazis, and referred to as ‘The Butcher of Prague’ by the Czechoslovakian citizens. His most deplorable claim to fame, however, is that he was one of the main architects of the Final Solution.
Once Jan and Josef meet up with the remaining members of the resistance in Prague, and their mission is learned, the news is greeted with shock and cynicism. The resistance’s current leader, Ladislav Vanek (Marcin Dorocinski), goes as far as to mock Jan and Josef, asking them why they don’t continue on to Germany to assassinate Hitler. There are others in the resistance who, like Ladislav, that feel extraordinarily reluctant. Those members feel moving ahead with such a bold action would only serve to unleash further devastating consequences of brutality on their fellow countrymen. All hope is not lost. There are members of the resistance who believe the time for taking small steps in the fight against savage tyranny is no longer an option.
One such person, who feels that way, is Czech resistance member, Uncle Hajský, in a role acted by three time BAFTA nominee Toby Jones (The Girl). He begins to set things in motion that will help the two Czech exiles blend in while they wait for further instructions from England. Hajský arranges for Jan and Josef to stay with the Moravec family. The family consists of the kind-hearted, Mrs. Moravec (Alena Mihulova) who is aware of why the two men are there; Mr. Moravec (Pavel Reznicek), who mainly sits and reads the newspapers, while occasionally belittling his son At’a Moravec’s (Bill Milner), ambition to be a violin player, an instrument the boy never seems to be without. At first, Hajský insists that Jan and Josef must stay in the apartment and wait. He needs to get them medical clearance papers, which they can present if they are stopped and asked during the day by the Gestapo, or just a regular German soldier, as to why they are not working. He also instructs the men, that if they do venture out, not to go out together; that it would only arouse suspicion if anyone were to spot them.
The waiting is not something that sits well with either man. Jan, is often amenable, but is given to occasional bouts of anxiety. Josef’s personality comes across as abrasive; when he is not brooding on the state of the mission, he has little time, patience, or temperament for anything else. All of that inner turmoil begins to lessen, to a degree, when he meets Lenka, a role acted by acclaimed, Czech born actress, Anna Geislerová (Fair Play). Josef has met his match in Lenka; who like himself, has the deepest contempt and hatred for the Nazis. She desires nothing more than to see them all forcibly removed from her homeland, and for life to return to pre-war conditions. Jan, meanwhile, has taken up a courtship with Marie (Charlotte Le Bon), an attractive woman with a pleasing disposition, who works for the Moravec family; it doesn’t take long for genuine feelings to escalate between Jan and Marie. The two women were originally brought into the mission to give Jan and Josef a realistic cover, allowing them to move about in public more freely, while planning and plotting how best to assassinate Heydrich.
With each successive day, Heydrich’s routine is meticulously documented. The resistance knows when he leaves for work in the morning, and arrives home at night. They have become keenly aware that he prefers to travel in an open top car, accompanied only by his driver, although, on certain days, he does receive a military security detail in the form of a tank that follows closely behind his car. The home Heydrich lives in with his family is too heavily guarded for a successful attempt, and the same security risks are present where he works. There is, however, during one portion of his route, a moment where his car must slow down while taking a curve; that is the spot which offers the would-be assassins their best opportunity to strike.
A date is planned to carry out the assassination, but must be abandoned. Through their contacts, the resistance has learned that Heydrich is being recalled to Berlin. The time table for everything has to be moved up. Everyone directly involved with the mission and the resistance is given a cyanide tablet to bite into in case of capture. The tablet offers those involved their only true escape from the Nazis, whether the intended target is killed or not.
Does Heydrich survive the assassination attempt on his life? What will the Nazi reprisals be against the Czech people for trying to kill one of their leaders? Is there a way out of Czechoslovakia, especially for the young lovers? Students of history, will already know the answers to those questions – for the rest of you, I can recommend this movie with the following proviso: Nothing very exciting happens during the first hour of the film, perhaps even a bit longer. This is not an action packed movie, although the last half hour offers plenty of carnage, as a David versus Goliath struggle, within the confines of a church no less, takes place. I found the movie to be worth my time, but in the interest of full disclosure, World War II history has always held an interest for me.
The film, which is devoid of revisionist history, which would have certainly upped its excitement factor, was a labor of love for BAFTA & Oscar nominated director, Sean Ellis (Metro Manila). After watching a documentary on ‘Operation Anthropoid’ in the early 2000s, he proceeded to spend the next fifteen years bringing the story of the assassination to the screen. Aiding Ellis in his cinematic journey was his co-screenwriter, Anthony Frewin (Color Me Kubrick). The film has a runtime of 120 minutes, and is comprised of the genres of biography, history, thriller and war. The movie premiered in the Czech Republic on July 1, 2016 at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. The film is currently playing in theaters, and should hold special appeal to those interested in history, especially an interesting aspect of World War II history, which has not been extensively showcased, as so many other significant events of the time period have.