Since this is my first review, a few words of prep. I tend to rant, and these ‘reviews’ often become more like reflections. In historical films in particular, where I’m knowledgeable of context, facts, and/or anecdotes, these reactions are even more involved.
Beware, for this post is dark and full of spoilers.
I’ve got a lot to say about Operation Anthropoid. Why, I cannot tell. Perhaps it’s because of the sheer drama behind the historical events and all who took part in them. The cast of players is curious enough: a brutal SS-Reichsprotektor; his boss; his fanatical wife; two Czech parachutists; the brave and selfless families who sheltered them; a resistance group in Prague slowly being picked off during the occupation. The story is just as intense: the only successful government-backed assassination of a high-ranking Nazi officer, followed by shocking reprisals that including the razing of an entire Czech village called Lidice.
When I heard that the 2010 Anthropoid-centric novel HHhH by Laurent Binet was being adapted into a French-produced film called The Man with the Iron Heart (2017), helmed by Cédric Jimenez and with such names attached to it as Jason Clarke, Rosamund Pike, Jack Reynor, and Mia Wasikowska, I nearly fell into a dead faint. HHhH is high on my list of favourite novels. It’s one of those books that grabs you in with hooked teeth and leaves you bleeding for a few days after you’ve finished. As a depiction of the events before, during, and after Operation Anthropoid, from both sides of the events, it’s excellent. Binet’s detail is detached yet visceral, his story episodic yet linked by a running thread, his characterisation coldly empathetic and yet far from impartial. The saying from which stems the acronym, Himmlers Hirn heißt Heydrich (“Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich”), arose during that period, and encapsulates the astounding scale at which Heydrich was operating as a subordinate.
The wider story concerning Heydrich has been adapted to film an incredible eight times; incredible, considering the relative obscurity of the event compared to such blockbuster topics as D-Day, Market-Garden, or the Atlantic war. The productions from the 40s were objectively terrible; Conspiracy (2001) and Anthropoid (2016) have so far been the only films that have really achieved something in conveying the tale, from the central perspectives of the Heydrich and his Endlösung (Final Solution), and the Czech parachutists Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš, respectively. Going into The Man with the Iron Heart, I tried not to keep expectations inordinately high, but I was hoping for the same attention to historical detail as Anthropoid, with perhaps a smidgen less of the heartstring-pulling. What I got was a solid film, but with little true emotional gravitas, scenes that began excellently but ended poorly, and historical moments that really did not need to be changed for the sake of cinema. I enjoyed the film – I’ll watch it again, for sure – but some of my major gripes can be summarised with a few cases:
1. The Night of the Long Knives began incredibly – it was dark, quick, harsh, quiet, and brutal. I loved it…until the director chose to superimpose a montage of images over it featuring rifles and fullscreen fire. It was such a cinematically unpleasing aesthetic, cheapening the blunt terror that had begun to be established.
2. 17-year-old Ata Moravec’s fate was unnecessarily changed, and I was very saddened by this. He was the son of Marie and Alois Moravec; the former had sheltered the parachutists prior to the assassination. When their home was raided, Marie bit into a cyanide capsule in the bathroom, but Ata was captured and tortured (physically and psychologically) for a day before being sent to Mauthausen for execution. Anthropoid showed this, and in my opinion, was a testament to Ata’s immense strength of will, holding out as long as he did and as young as he was. This film left him nameless, made him into a child, and strapped him into a chair to watch his equally nameless father be tortured before giving up the location of the parachutists. My problem here is not that there was a lack of human violence – gods, no, the scene was still horrific and the child actor really sold it – but Ata’s story was unnecessarily modified and made anonymous. I felt that it disrespected his memory and the memory of his family.
3. The major inaccuracies in the church scene; that is, the final stand the parachutists took against the Germans. Having read so many accounts and having been to the church myself (a wholly moving experience), I was sobbing all through Anthropoid because of all the minute details of the story they’d gotten right according to the major consensus of the history. The Man with the Iron Heart had no such accuracy. Again, unnecessary changes that negated the desperation and power of the standoff – 8 paratroopers held out against 750 SS troops for several hours. Also – I can’t help it – when Gabčík and Kubiš were in the flooding crypt and Gabčík made it clear they wouldn’t make it out alive and Kubiš cried out, “What about America?” I had to stifle a snort. I’m sorry. It was so out of place. It harked back to a previous conversation in the film that I thought totally negated the point of them being patriots. Why on earth would they want to escape to a ‘land of freedom’ when they were giving their lives for their homeland?
Despite this, there were several good scenes. The double suicide between an (unnamed, again) father and son absolutely broke me. They were among the scenes depicting the reprisals that really wrapped a cold hand around my heart and squeezed until I thought it would burst. Similarly, after Gabčík and Kubiš kill themselves to avoid capture, there is a painfully beautiful scene of them floating beneath the waters of the flooded crop, light pouring in around them and their reaching hands. The scenes of the reprisals and of the Einsatzgruppen death squads were appropriately blatant without being emotionally manipulative. They expressed the stark reality of the events, and in doing so, made them more terrifying, really encapsulating Arendt’s ‘banality of evil’ concept with how seemingly flippantly the flagrant crimes were committed. The soundtrack, also, was excellent. I bought the title track and another of the first few immediately. They really capture that cold desperation of a time long past and lives lived. So yes, cinematography and sound and some elements of the story were good. The acting was nothing of particular note. It was enjoyable enough, it demonstrated a deep connect with the characters, but I just did not feel it as deeply, perhaps, as I should.
Also, I’m glad we finally got a chance to see some of Heydrich’s real history (I’m looking at you, 1940s films) adapted. He’s an overlooked character in the popular history of the Reich – if people know anyone beyond Hitler, it’s usually his triumvirate with the two G’s, very occasionally Himmler – and that’s a deep tragedy to his victims. He was in charge of the Einsatzgruppen, for goodness’ sake.
In the same breath, I’m also glad they included Lina as the one who drew him into this. Their treatment of her character reminded me much of Magda Goebbels in Der Untergang, which was appreciated. Lina was just as culpable as her husband, and I’ll never believe he would have gotten where he was without her. After his demotion from the navy he was adrift – he may have wandered into NSDAP circles in the future, but never to this level. The blame for that push will indisputably always fall to Lina in my eyes. Also, I have to say I appreciated little anecdotal moments such as Heydrich’s visit to Himmler’s failed chicken farm and the crippling cold besieging the latter, or Heydrich’s barrel-organ quote said on his deathbed.
The thing is, focus on personages aside, Anthropoid is simply a far superior film as an adaptation of the assassination story. It’s incredibly difficult not to discuss it, because the close release of the two films, and the content, beg a comparison. The emotions were built, not thrown in randomly or in a contrived manner. Anthropoid was sometimes too manipulative, but it never felt like they were forcing it. The Man with the Iron Heart did, and too often. It was less cohesive – it didn’t have the same running thread that made the novel’s episodic nature still feel like an integrated whole (in my opinion). Still, in most cases, this film’s details were as detached yet as visceral as the novel. It generally was coldly empathetic while remaining firmly sympathetic to the parachutists – however, again, sometimes too contrived in its quest to do so.
In the end, I am just glad that Operation Anthropoid is getting so much attention these days. It’s a story that has fascinated me for years, and I’m made very content by seeing the events be made accessible to the general public in a quality befitting their incredible nature.