ANTHROPOID is divided into two episodes, one more gut-wrenching than the last as it tells the fact-based story of Czech partisans on what is essentially a suicide mission to assassinate SS General Reinhardt Heydrich, Butcher of Prague, co-planner of the Final Solution, and third in line in the Nazi hierarchy. While the first part is a superbly directed spy thriller full of suspicious glances, impromptu diversions, and split-second timing, it is but a prelude to a second half, which is an unsparing explication of why people were willing to sacrifice their lives in order to fight the occupying Nazis. It is the ninth circle of Hell, told with visceral immediacy that never stoops to portray the partisans as anything but fragile human beings taking on an extraordinary role in history.
Czechoslovakia, having been surrendered by the world to Hitler’s Reich, has been living under Heydrich’s reign of terror designed to induce the Czechs to support Germany’s war effort. With no help coming from the Allies, the Czech government-in-exile makes the fateful decision to assassinate the Heydrich, knowing that the retaliation against the populace will be gruesome, but also hoping that the risk might produce a greater good. We in the audience are left to judge the wisdom of that decision, and filmmaker Sean Ellis makes his case with a careful telling that neither mitigates the human cost, nor the unspeakable evil against which the partisans are fighting.
The film opens with two partisans, Josef (Cillian Murphy) and Jan (Jamie Dornan) parachuting into the snowy Czech countryside in the dead of night. These are not superspies. The suspense from their initial injury while landing, through the unfamiliar faces they encounter who may be friends or collaborators builds incrementally and relentlessly. Life and death situations don’t always find them coolly able to respond. There is self-doubt, second-guessing about the mission, and the toll that living with the fear of exposure takes, played by Murphy and Dornan with appropriately complex honesty that allows for both grim determination and anguished outbursts.
Told in tight shots and spontaneous framing that conveys the claustrophobia and suspicion of living under German occupation in Prague, the first act, Josef and Jan make contact with the Underground, judiciously plan the attack, and unexpectedly grow close to the two women (Anna Geislerová and Charlotte Le Bon) assigned by the resistance to validate their cover story about why they are in Prague. It makes a stolen dance an achingly poignant contrast to the Underground cell’s leader (Toby Jones) as he quietly explains the consequences of capture while placing cyanide capsules on a table in front of Joseph and Jan.
The reasons for this pervasive, ominous dread of trusting the wrong person or making the wrong move in a public place, will come in that ci-mentioned second act where the brutality of pure evil, physical and psychological, will be made manifest with meticulous detail. It makes the mad scramble for a dropped cyanide capsule the stuff of nightmares, and the absolute silence after a prolonged volley of gunfire and hand-grenades too painful to bear. For all the direct exposition, Ellis also works on an almost subliminal level of devastating artistry. Beginning in almost washed out sepia tones and building, like the tension, into vivid colors the way our senses become hyper-aware of their surroundings as danger lurks. By the end, he has created an aura of both that imminent danger and a disoriented sense of unreality stark in it poetry and its terror.
ANTHROPOID, the code name of the mission, is strong stuff, but realized with a beauty of intensity that grabs you by the throat whether you know the story from history of not. It is an emotionally eviscerating experience that is also, counterintuitively, uplifting about the best and the worst of which we are capable.