Resistance Is Futile, Again: On “Anthropoid”

Sean Ellis’s WWII drama tells the story of how the Czech resistance managed to assassinate Nazi general Reinhard Heydrich (a.k.a. “The Butcher of Prague”) and shows what they suffered as a result—but it fails to answer the question of why this story matters.

Anthropoid is not a complicated movie. (“Simple” might even be the better word.) It begins when Czech resistance fighters Josef Gabčík (Cillian Murphy) and Jan Kubiš (Jamie Dornan) are airdropped into Czechoslovakia. The first order of business is getting into Prague, and things do not start out well after a dissembling farmer attempts to turn them in and is summarily shot by Gabčík. (His farmhand, however, escapes when Kubiš finds himself unable to pull the trigger.) That leaves a truck without an owner, as luck would have it, and the two soldiers are thus able to drive into town, rendezvous with the much-depleted Czech resistance, and begin to enact “Operation Anthropoid”—the now largely forgotten plot to assassinate the notorious Nazi general Reinhard Heydrich.

Assassination plots don’t happen overnight, however—even when the plan turns out to be as simple as “run at car and shoot at him; get away”—so our two heroes are placed with a trustworthy family of three who happen to employ a beautiful servant. Kubiš promptly takes up with the naive but faithful servant, Gabčík takes up with her world-weary but passionate friend, and before too long these budding romances have to take their fated backseat to the urgent but much disputed order to commence the operation. (These disputes don’t have much substance to them, but you know they matter because of all the yelling.)

From that point on we get to watch as Kubiš, Gabčík, and crew (save one important deserter) attempt to enact the plot (always difficult), flee the scene (also challenging), and stay undetected in the ensuing crackdown. When that crackdown cracks all the way down, the movie turns into a siege thriller (or better to say siege tragedy) where the few impressively stalwart soldiers fight back wave after wave of Nazi personnel and bullets from inside first a church and then a crypt. They do not succeed in beating Nazi Germany, of course, but they do a solid imitation of the Battle of Thermopylae before they are undone.

There’s a bit more to it than that, but not much more. The main characters have no lives beyond what we see on the screen, and the supporting characters, though generally well played (often by Czech actors), are generally hard to distinguish. There is the one who is not brave, the one who fears for the reprisals, and the other ones who are as brave and noble as Kubiš and Gabčík (both of whom have small moments of frailty that allow us to see that their bravery is earned, not ingrained.) All of these brave Czech fighters are brave in the face of certain death. That is what “bravery” means in this film—the willingness to fight even when the fight is hopeless—and the transparency of the final outcome is something that puts the burden of tragedy on a film that doesn’t quite appear to have such grand ambitions. And unfortunately for the audience, a tragedy that doesn’t recognize itself as such makes for a pretty bleak entertainment.

A tragedy that doesn’t recognize itself as such makes for a pretty bleak entertainment.

That’s not to say that the film needed to have three acts or a fatal flaw or anything; it’s just that, if a film is going to declare its lamentable ending in advance, and walk us rigorously through all the steps that lead to the main characters’ annihilation, it had better find some other way of holding its audience’s attention and interest other than plot. (There’s a reason why slaughterhouse documentaries don’t tend to get greenlit.) Shakespeare, of course, had his poetry, even amidst utter desolation (“Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, / And thou no breath at all?”). Horror films have surprise and suspense (and viscera, of course). And war films have those same options and more. Recently, the Brad Pitt vehicle Fury overcame its death drive by focusing on character dynamics and on the survivalist aspect of warfare (use whatever you got). And in a more historical mode, The Army of Shadows and Wajda’s war trilogy (A Generation, Kanal, Ashes and Diamonds) employed a quasi-procedural approach to walk us through the challenges of survival under war conditions (and also benefitted from exquisite camerawork and sound design). The fact that Kanal can take place almost entirely within a sewer system and use an even smaller cast of doomed characters while still feeling so thrilling and alive shows that Anthropoid’s project is not an impossible one.

There are some good ingredients here, however. The recreation of 1940s Prague—especially its Cathedral and crypt—is indeed impressive, the performances are decent enough (as long as you can forgive the creep of British and Irish accents), and the film’s single-minded focus on Operation Anthropoid—its unwillingness to be distracted by the kind of sappy side-plots that often derail similar Hollywood projects—might even have been a virtue under better circumstances. But although I can certainly agree with the film’s creators that Operation Anthropoid is worth knowing about, that the Czech resistance fighters were committed and brave, and that the Nazi response was horrific, that doesn’t mean that it needed to be made into a movie.

Antrhopoid-2016-Prague

Prague in Anthropoid

Aside from the fact that this episode does seem to have escaped much notice, I have a hard time even guessing what could have motivated the film’s director and producers. They seem uninterested in their central characters, uncurious about the political and strategic questions surrounding this assassination (the question of whether Heydrich’s death will be worth the fallout is no sooner asked than it is dropped), and more interested in asserting that its characters are brave (an older resistance fighter tells Kubiš that he is “the bravest man he has ever known” before he has even undertaken the brave action in question) than inquiring about what bravery means or entails.

Anthropoid isn’t boring, despite its thematic hollowness and its repetition. It means well and it doesn’t look bad. But when the last scene closes and a black screen appears, in silence, with the names of the Anthropoid participants in white, the resulting effect is supposed to be one of awe: “These are their names.” But what I felt instead was blankness: “These are just names.”  Bravery means nothing if you can’t understand fear, and deaths mean nothing if you can’t appreciate the life that preceded it. This movie is about bravery but it is not brave, and it portrays death but it has no life to it. In the end, it’s just there. FL

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