Allow me, if you will, a few moments of self-pity.
Operation Anthropoid was supposed to be my story. I’ve been intrigued by the Heydrich assassination ever since Robert Harris mentioned it in the end notes of 1992’s Fatherland; I’ve been obsessed since I stumbled across Callum MacDonald’s history in the bargain pile a year or so later. I made my way to Prague in 1998 so I could get started on research; I returned in 2006 so I could write a screenplay. Hoping to sell said screenplay, I nearly moved to Hollywood that same year with nothing but a U-Haul and my ego. But because movies are big and collaborative, full of parts and difficult to assemble, I opted to novelize it instead; I was an underemployed waiter with plentiful free time, which I spent researching and writing, listening to Radiohead and Joanna Newsom in libraries and coffee shops as I crafted my opus, my way. I nearly went broke going to Prague a third time for still more research; I nearly went crazy trying to land an agent and a book deal. In 2012, facing imminent marriage and fatherhood, I Kickstarted the project out into the world. (Obligatory video link here—I’m told it’s funny.) I then watched in frustration as the English translation of Laurent Binet’s HHhH launched nearly simultaneously, and got all the attention I felt I deserved. (Obligatory slightly-bitchy and passive-aggressive Amazon review here.)
In short, I started Tortoise Books in no small part to launch Resistance. (Obligatory buy-my-book link here.)
So it was with some trepidation that I found that yet another person-who-wasn’t-me had lined up all the money and people to pull it off—all the movie gears that mush mesh to move an idea from paper to film. But I’m strangely pleased to say that Sean Ellis’s Anthropoid is a must-see. It’s easily the best English-language movie about the subject. (I still haven’t seen 1964’s Attentat, so I can’t forego the qualifiers, but it’s far more interesting and accurate than, say, Hangmen Also Die, or Operation Daybreak.) And it’s just a plain ol’ great movie. I might have been able to tell the story better—but not in two hours.
It’s a great movie, in part, because it gets at the reality of the people who conducted the most dramatic assassination of World War II. Anthropoid is an ugly code name for the killing of an ugly man; the word means man-like, or similar to a man, and anyone with a serious knowledge of the inhuman crimes perpetrated by Reinhard Heydrich knows it’s a fair descriptor. Part of the reason the story’s not more widely known, though, is because it’s disturbing. We want the killing of a bad man to be a good thing; we want to resist evil and feel good. But the movie gets at the uncomfortable truth behind all that—the people who do such things don’t always end up with parades and medals and happily-ever-after.
It’s certainly a less comforting message than you’ll see in most summer movies. Most people prefer the human-like to the human, not only in their villains, but in their protagonists. We want superheroes in suits of armor, flying and invulnerable, or maybe with one major flaw that they can overcome with hard work in a Joseph-Campbellesque hero’s quest; it excuses us, in a way, from doing anything too noteworthy ourselves.
Anthropoid focuses relentlessly, and almost claustrophobically, on the realness of its protagonists, on their doubts and fears and troubles; it focuses on them every bit as tightly as they focused on their mission. Some critics claim they’re not fully fleshed out, but I say that’s unfair. The history on Jan Kubiš and Joseph Gabčík is thin precisely because they succeeded. They accomplished their mission despite the odds, and in such catastrophic fashion, that neither they nor the people who knew them were able to tell their full story when it was all said and done. We know what they did; we only have the barest outlines of who they were. Is it right to tell a story about a real historical figure without knowing all that much about them? I think it’s wrong not to.
Critics also say the movie meanders, and this, too, isn’t fair—the real assassins took time carrying out their mission, dropping into occupied Czechoslovakia a few days after the winter solistice, and meeting their fate a few days shy of the summer one. (The movie gods will tell you it’s OK to turn British into Americans [a la U-571] or starved resistors into well-fed collaborators [as in Bridge on the River Kwai—which, I must admit, is one of my favorite movies ever], but if you attempt to tell a story honestly in a way that makes it potentially less lucrative, you’ve committed a serious sin.) If anything, Ellis punched up the drama of those months about as well as he could have without straying into grotesque historical inaccuracy. And for my money, Ellis found plenty of tension in that time by sticking to the important struggles. They say the interesting drama isn’t between good and evil, but good and good, and you get a lot of the latter here, especially in the arguments between the assassins and those who gave them shelter, about whether it was right to kill a butcher and thereby cause still more butchery. Unlike the comforting and easily-forgettable summer popcorn fare, this movie leans more towards the Saving Private Ryan territory (and even goes beyond) by asking an important and unanswerable question: what happens when you’re asked to give everything for a worthy cause, and you succeed—but you still have to lose everything?
Is it a different take on the story than mine? Yes—I saw it as an epic, a way to hit all the touchpoints of early 20th-century history. For me, this Second World War drama makes the most sense when you see how miraculously Czechoslovakia won its independence during the First; their first president accomplished something truly Promethean, and their second was cursed to have to try and recreate the feat. The man who set the mission into motion, Colonel František Moravec, was as complicated and full a person as you’d find in any Shakespearean tragedy; he was stuck being the quiet spymaster, anonymously orchestrating feats of resistance while, back home, a fellow army officer who shared his rank and last name became the public face of collaboration with the Nazis. A side episode to Operation Anthropoid—the attempted bombing of the Skoda Works—was as futile and bitterly comic as anything in Catch 22. I could go on and on—but that doesn’t work very well in a feature-length film. (If anybody wants to make a streaming series, on the other hand…I digress.) So Ellis was wise to focus on the thriller within the epic—in his hands, it’s a tense and gripping and tight story, and he makes it so in part by being so relentlessly focused that he skips the side plots that might have distracted a lesser director. It’s a story that deserves to be told, and there have been all too few willing to tell it; others may be happy with unending Marvel movies, or an infinite sequence of Spiderman reboots, but I’d much rather have a real human story.