Anthropoid: The Fog of War, by Tyler Smith
For a good portion of Sean Ellis’ Anthropoid, it felt like just another World War II movie. As horrendous as it may sound, I found myself thinking, “Do we really need another standard World War II movie?” Of course, exploring the bloodiest and most complex war in human history has led to some of the best movies ever made. But, 70 years and hundreds of war movies later, is there anything new to say? Or has the war simply become an opportunity for a filmmaker to make a quick grab for artistic prestige? Thankfully, about halfway through what had quickly become an above average – but run-of-the-mill – war movie, Ellis pivots dramatically towards material that is both philosophically challenging and viscerally dynamic, ultimately making Anthropoid one of the most distinct war movies in recent memory.
The film is based on the true story of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, Hitler’s third-in-command. The assassination was carried out by a small band of Czech soldiers on the streets of Prague. Once the assassination happens, however, the story really kicks in, as the Nazi reprisals in Czechoslovakia is sweeping and brutal, leading many to question whether it was worth the thousands of innocent people dead just so the Czechs could carry out the (largely symbolic) killing of a high ranking Nazi. After all, by this time, the Third Reich was a self-sustaining machine, bigger than any one man.
As a film, Anthropoid contains many of the usual World War II movie staples. Desaturated photography, lavish production design, a grim mood. Artistically, the film has two major assets in its favor. The first is that it all takes place in Prague, that mysterious city that is so hauntingly cinematic. It’s difficult to shoot an uninteresting frame of film in Prague, and Ellis takes full advantage of his location. The second element of the film is a function of its story. Once the assassination is carried out, the soldiers hole up in an Orthodox church, fighting off the Nazi attacks for as long as they can. In a film featuring the assassination of a high ranking Nazi official, Ellis wisely understands that the true climax is the last stand of these soldiers, and treats the sequence with the respect it deserves. It is stressful, exciting, and tragic; we know that there won’t be a happy ending, and the characters know it, too. Which makes their refusal to give up all the more inspiring.
The acting is top notch all around, though the characters themselves feel a bit underdeveloped and archetypal at times. Jamie Dornan and Cillian Murphy are the primary assassins; one is fairly green and naive, the other hard-bitten and cynical. Their dynamic really isn’t that much different than most buddy cop movies, but thankfully Dornan and Murphy approach their roles with commitment and sincerity. They are given solid support by actors Toby Jones, Alena Mihulová, Charlotte Le Bon, Anna Geislerová, and Bill Millner. Each of these actors imbue their characters with weight and humanity, and each is given a moment to really shine.
But the characters are just part of the overall tapestry of the film. This isn’t a character piece, nor is it a full-on action movie. In many ways, it is a lavish reenactment of a lesser known story from the war; a story that definitely deserves to be told.
However, the aspect of the story that struck me the hardest is the moral question. Many of us, when asked if we would take advantage of the opportunity to kill a key Nazi official, would respond with a resounding “Yes!” We say this under the assumption that to do so would significantly cripple the Third Reich and that somehow the consequences would be minimal. What Anthropoid does so expertly is re-contextualize the question, asking us what it would be worth in order to strike such a dramatic – but ultimately inconsequential – blow to the Nazis. Knowing that thousands would die as a result, would we still carry this out, or choose to fight the war a different way?
In killing Heydrich, the Czechs showed that the Nazis weren’t untouchable. And to a country so concerned with projecting an image of strength and domination as Hitler’s Germany, such a statement was invaluable. But, again, how many lives was the statement worth?
Anthropoid ultimately sides with the assassins, but I was thankful that it was willing to examine the more in-depth and complicated decisions that people are forced to make during war. As technically adept as the film is, it is in this respect that Sean Ellis sets his film apart from the standard World War II film, ultimately crafting a compelling, complex film that draws its audience into the action and never lets them go.