Sunday 2 September 2018

Movie Review: Anthropoid (2016)

A World War Two action drama based on real events, Anthropoid is a stellar retelling of the assassination attempt on Reich Protector Reinhard Heydrich of the Nazi SS, also known as the Butcher of Prague.

It's late 1941, and Heydrich has been appointed by Hitler to crush all resistance in occupied Czechoslovakia. Agents Jozef Gabčík (Cillian Murphy) and Jan Kubiš (Jamie Dornan) of the Czechoslovak government-in-exile are parachuted into the countryside. Jozef's foot is injured upon landing, and the two men have to evade Nazi sympathizers and make their way into Prague. They find the resistance decimated, but manage to connect with a surviving cell led by "Uncle" Jan Zelenka-Hajský (Toby Jones) and Ladislav Vaněk (Marcin Dorociński).

Jozef and Jan are harboured by a local family, and to facilitate their movements connect with underground members Lenka (Anna Geislerová) and Marie (Charlotte Le Bon), as they set about planning their mission to assassinate Heydrich. They track his movements and select a location for an ambush. There is dissent about the mission within the ranks of the dispirited resistance, with Vaněk among those fearing the Nazi retaliation. The day of the strike arrives, and not much goes according to plan.

Directed and co-written by Sean Ellis, Anthropoid is an exquisitely constructed film. Breathing deeply from the soul of a city crushed under the Nazi boot, Ellis delves into the people, the places and the events with obvious care, fleshing out in admirable detail the characters, emotions and frightful consequences of a seminal yet controversial mission.

With the Nazis at the height of power and Czech resistance effectively crushed by Heydrich, the idea of a ragtag group assassinating the third most powerful man in Hitler's regime (and the main architect of the Holocaust) was rightfully inconceivable. And even should they succeed, the bloody and disproportionate reprisals were predictable, piling more agony onto an already suffering nation.

And yet. The potential morale and propaganda boost was undeniable, and the message of unyielding continued resistance would register at the highest levels of the Third Reich. And so Jozef and Jan carry on their reconnaissance, meld into the city, cozy up to Lenka and Marie to help conceal their identities, and cobble together the resources and help to try and carry out their mission.

Ellis dedicates the first hour of Anthropoid to the careful set-up, the attempted assassination lands right at the midpoint, and the second half of the film kicks into a high gear. Now the hunters are the hunted, the backlash is, as anticipated, fearsome. Acts of historic heroism and treachery play out on the streets of Prague, culminating in a fearsome climax at the Cathedral. The final battle is filmed with an artistry at once horrifying and stirring. Sacrifice, brutality and heroism in a World War Two context have rarely been captured on-screen with this level of passion.

The performances are stoic, Cillian Murphy most prominent as the singularly determined agent, Toby Jones providing stalwart support as the astute leader of the surviving local resistance.

Heartfelt and unblinking, Anthropoid takes its place among the great World War Two movies.

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