Screening “Anthropoid” as the Opening Night film at the 51st annual Karlovy Vary International Film Festival was a shrewd move on the part of the filmmakers – where but the Czech Republic would audiences be so receptive of a film about the Czech resistance fighters who assassinated Reinhard Heydrich, the third most powerful man in the Nazi Party and the infamous “Butcher of Prague”?
As we have learned from far too many documentaries and fact-based narratives, however, a fascinating and heroic true story can only take the storyteller so far. There’s an extraordinary tale to be told here, one which “Anthropoid” occasionally succeeds in telling, but director Sean Ellis (who co-wrote with Anthony Frewin) only sporadically does it justice.
Jan Kubis (Jamie Dornan) and Josef Gabcik (Cillian Murphy) are two of seven resistance fighters who parachute into Czechoslovakia on orders from the exiled Czech government in London. The men arrive in Prague to find that their contact has been killed, and that what remains of the local resistance can fit comfortably in one room. Those remaining fighters are somewhat aghast at Jan and Josef’s marching orders: Operation Anthropoid, the assassination of Heydrich.
“Why don’t you just go ahead and kill Hitler?” asks one of them. “He’s just a few hundred kilometers down the road in a little village called Berlin!”
Determined to follow orders, this strained group of militants — including Ladislav (the strikingly dark-eyed Marcin Dorocinski, “The Pact”) and Uncle (Toby Jones, switching sides after playing a Nazi in the first two “Captain America” movies) — formulates a plan and assembles their weaponry. Along the way, the men fall in love, Jan with Marie (Charlotte Le Bon, “The Walk”), the daughter of the family that is housing the men, and Josef with Lenka (Anna Geislerová), who gets one of the film’s best scenes, scolding Josef and Jan for not treating her and Marie like equal partners in the Resistance, as she disassembles Josef’s revolver and points out that it needs cleaning.
This is sexy stuff — and probably the most romantic moment that transpires between either couple — but the presence of actual Czech actress Geislerová somewhat highlights the fact that she’s surrounded by a lot of UK and French-Canadian performers doing Mittel-European accents. (And those accents are of variable quality.) It’s like the film version of “Gorky Park,” where the presence of one Russian in the cast gave away the game that everyone else in the film was British or American.
Ellis and Frewin attempt some narrative risk by having the characters’ major goal — the assassination of Heydrich — happen midway through the film, focusing afterward on the brutal Nazi reprisals against the citizens of Prague and the attempts of the Resistance to remain hidden and possibly escape. It’s at this point that “Anthropoid” loses its footing, never quite regaining it until the film’s apparent reason for existence, an extended sequence in which the seven parachutists hide out in a church, keeping wave after wave of Nazi soldiers at bay. But by the time it arrives in the film, the story has lost its momentum, and it’s almost too little, too late.
Still, in and of itself, the sequence itself is devastatingly powerful, since these men are literally fighting to the finish, each one of them prepared to commit suicide rather than face capture, torture and the surrender of valuable intelligence. Ellis and editor Richard Mettler craft an agonizing and unforgettable finale; if their sense of pacing had been as sharp throughout, “Anthropoid” might have fulfilled its potential.