Operation Anthropoid was a code name. It sounds like a sci-fi adventure but it was, in fact, the given name for the assassination attempt of SS General Reinhard Heydrich in Prague, Czechoslovakia, 1942.
The story was told before, most notably in Operation Daybreak with Timothy Bottoms, but despite the Lewis Gilbert directed 1975 thriller – later retitled as The Price of Freedom – the heroic event undertaken by Czechoslavak exile soldiers remains largely unknown.
Heydrich was Hitler’s number three. He was the head of the combined security services of Nazi Germany and oversaw the Holocaust of the Jews. During a somber and effective opening to the new thriller Anthropoid from British independent film director Sean Ellis, who also acted as cinematographer and co-wrote the script with Anthony Frewin, we learn a little of Heydrich’s background and the events leading up to the operation. In 1938, without a shot fired, Czechoslovakia fell under Hitler’s rule. It was later in 1941 when the merciless Heydrich was appointed acting Protector of the occupied nation, and it was during this time he was given the nickname The Butcher of Prague.
From orders given in London by the Czechoslovakian government in-exile, a small handful of soldiers in exile were parachuted back into their occupied homeland with a simple order: Assassinate SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich. As Jozef Gabčík (Cillian Murphy) explains, there’s difference between assassinate and murder. “Murder would indicate it’s a life worth living.”
“Are you completely mad?” asks Toby Jones as Jan Zelenka-Hajsky, one of the Czeck underground contacts, when Murphy’s character explains why he’s there. “If captured, no escape” Jan continues, adding that the men would be tortured until they’ve told everything they know, then killed.
The story is a good one and it’s mapped out in three distinct acts: the setup, the operation, and the aftermath. The problem with Anthropoid is the way in which director Ellis has chosen to shoot and edit the film.
Once the mostly silent introduction is completed and the real-life black and white news footage fades, director Ellis uses a widescreen canvas with a hand-held to tell his story. That’s fine during the chaotic moments when the two principle soldiers, Murphy and Fifty Shades of Grey Jamie Dornan are parachuted in and crash land in nearby woods, but it’s a form that continues throughout the rest of the film. Long before the exciting, final shootout occurs, the dizzying, over-used style of the camerawork doesn’t pull you in to the action, it distances you.
With only the occasional scene-setting establishing shot held steady, the rest of the film is constantly on the move, and it’s an approach that ultimately works against it. The events surrounding the real-life assassination became chaotic – a Sten submachine gun that jammed at a crucial moment changed everything – but the impact of chaos is lessened simply because everything in the first act leading up to the attempted assassination is shot in the same, chaotic way, even the quieter moments. Despite the weight of the story and the historical accuracy of the events, the film’s overall visual style takes away what should engage.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 120 Minutes Overall rating: 5 (out of 10)