Heroism. Patriotism. Futility. Is it possible to celebrate the two virtues and still recognize that sometimes the end result may seem a bit tarnished? Anthropoid tells the story (based on actual events) of Czech patriots in World War II who act courageously, yet in the end, as the death tolls grow on both sides, we are left to consider the terrible cost of war—not just the numbers, but the individuals that make up those statistics.
In 1938, the European leaders gave Czechoslovakia to German to try to establish “peace in our time.” Soon Germany had established major factories for armaments and imposed harsh conditions on the country. When resistance began, SS General Reinhard Heydrich (the third ranking official in Nazi Germany and one of the architects of the Final Solution) came to oversee the country and earned the sobriquet “The Butcher of Prague”. In 1941, the Czech government-in-exile sent a group of parachutists to Prague on a mission to assassinate Heydrich. The mission had the code name Operation Anthropoid. The film follows the story of two of those agents, Josef Gabčík (Cillian Murphy) and Jan Kubiš (Jamie Dornan), as they work with locals to set up the assassination.
Josef and Jan have little intel about the city or their contacts there. The Nazi war machine has been very effective in eliminating the local resistance movement. Those freedom fighters who remain are very leery of Jan and Josef, and especially of their mission. Josef and Jan, in order to fit in to the city, connect with two women of the resistance, Lenka and Marie. There is some love story here, but it is minor. But as a part of those relationships, the film gets to consider some of the various perspectives that one finds in war. As Lenka talks with Josef as they walk around the city, she compares her attitude about the war (pragmatic and grounded in the reality of the situation) with Marie’s (a more romantic view of war).
The film strives to show both of these views in the portrayal of those involved in Operation Anthropoid. On the one hand, this is a film that relishes the bravery and sacrifice that Josef, Jan, and the others display. (This is the romanticized view.) They all know that any slip could mean death and the failure of the mission. Yet, even though they may have second thoughts, they are devoted to setting their nation free from the scourge that Heydrich oversees. They, like soldiers in any war, are willing to die for their country. But at the same time, the realities and consequences are very plain. When Josef and Jan first tell the locals what their mission is, it is pointed out that if they succeed, the Germans will kill thousands in retaliation. Josef is a bit too easy in saying that any patriotic Czech should be willing to die for this. Indeed, after the attempt, whole towns are killed or sent to death camps. We are left to consider if the plotters bear responsibility for the death of so many innocent people.
In time, the assassination team is holed up in a local cathedral as hundreds of German soldiers lay siege. The carnage of the shootout in the cathedral is almost worthy of Quentin Tarantino, but less graphic. The plotters nobly go out in a blaze of glory. But we also know that the German soldiers are also doing what they think is their duty to country. The body count that grows through the battle and knowing the doom that is the obvious outcome leaves us feeling a bit gloomy. In no way does this diminish the valor of the Czech fighters, but it does remind us (as Ecclesiastes so often does) of the vanity, meaninglessness, or hollowness of even the great virtues we often espouse.
In tone, the film reminds me of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan in that it tells the story of heroic actions, but leave us saddened by the terrible costs that those actions carry. The film also reminded me a poem I read long ago in school, “Dulce et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen. That poem, from World War I, calls the romance of dying for country and “old lie”. The way the reality of war and the romantic view of heroism often both compliment and conflict plays out well in Anthropoid.
Photos courtesy of Bleecker Street