The sheer infinity of World War II stories has proven to be one of cinema’s most renewable sources of inspiration, and — like a puzzle that slowly reveals its with the addition of every new piece — each movie made about that extraordinary period of time has the effect of enhancing them all. But with so many stories to tell, it’s unsurprising that even some of the most remarkable ones have been overlooked (if only, as is often the case, because there doesn’t seem to be much money in telling them).
Sean Ellis’ “Anthropoid” may not be a particularly compelling piece of drama, but it earns its place in the pantheon of World War II movies by virtue of the urgency with which it reaches into the pages of Czech history books, retrieves an enormously pivotal episode from them, and renders it for all to see on the silver screen.
Operation Anthropoid, the vaguely alien name for which is never unpacked in this film, was the most crucial mission that the Czechoslovakian resistance would undertake during the years when their country’s government was operating in exile. The consequences were enormous, but the goal was simple: Assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, Hitler’s third-in-command. Fortunately, the right men for the job literally fell out of the sky.
Ellis’ film opens with two paratroopers dropping in on their native land after receiving their orders from London. Jan Kubiš (Jamie Dornan, stiffer than he ever was in “Fifty Shades of Grey”) is a stoic, somewhat panic-stricken patriot whose love for Czechoslovakia is only matched by his hesitance about the best way of expressing it. Jozef Gabčík (Cillian Murphy, getting the job done) has no such compunctions — he believes that killing Heydrich is the best possible show of resistance, and could serve as a sign to his countrymen that surrendering to the Nazis isn’t the same thing as giving up. He knows that any number of Hitler’s men would be ready to take Heydrich’s place, that the action would be more symbolic than anything else, but he convinces his nervous friends of the underground that the impact would be worth the fallout.
And so Jan and Jozef return to Prague, building a team (which includes the ever-reliable Toby Jones), falling in love, and plotting the assassination with the same precision that Danny Ocean maps out a heist. If only the setting or the stakes allowed for the nimble jauntiness that makes Ocean’s movies so much fun. On the contrary, Ellis leans into the stolidness of the operation, resulting in a first act that’s dreary to the point of dullness. There’s no flow to the build-up, every interior is coated in the same brown color scheme, and the erratic camerawork — all shakiness and frantic close-ups — interferes with the script’s feeble attempts to tease a genuine spark of life out of its painfully functional characters.
But Ellis, whose career was ironically minted on the strength of the withering visual wit that defined his 2006 debut, “Cashback,” knows that he has history on his side. By the time the pieces are in place and Operation Anthropoid gets underway, the natural tension of the event takes over. Watching resistance fighters set a trap for Nazis in the middle of a metropolitan area is inherently exciting stuff, even if Ellis’ chaotic approach always makes it feel as though he’s a step behind the action — even if you’re watching a bunch of British and Irish actors don weak Czechoslovakian accents and trying to ignore how their casting doesn’t really serve the film’s strong patriotic streak.
It’s only when things get messy and the Nazis begin to retaliate that Ellis finds his feet. Gradually, as the Germans start executing thousands of innocent Czechs and torturing locals who might have any information about the identities of Jan and his friends, an abstract moral dilemma is reborn as a grim reality. Was killing one replaceable man worth the devastating repercussions? The term is “show of resistance,” but is the theater of insurgency so valuable that it should come at such a high cost?
“Anthropoid” does a much better job of raising these questions than it does answering them, even though Ellis ultimately attends to the latter without a shred of ambiguity. The false verisimilitude of Ellis’ gritty aesthetic finally serves its purpose during the film’s tense and breathlessly grim climactic shootout at Karel Boromjeksky Church — a memorialized event that’s as familiar to contemporary Czechs as Pearl Harbor is to Americans — the thunderous sequence forcing viewers to engage with the cost of martyrdom at an irreducibly physical level.
But a series of closing title cards, in which the film spoon-feeds us the operation’s historical legacy, clarifies why this thriller is only engaging when it foregoes politics in favor of a purely visceral experience. The context that Ellis provides for this story is as loose and isolated as the camerawork with which he depicts it. There’s no explicit mention of the Munich Agreement, there’s no tension between the Czech resistance and their proxy government in London, and there’s no sufficient explanation for why Churchill’s response was so crucial to the greater war effort. Despite the film’s gripping final chapter, its heroic Czechoslovakian characters are completely disconnected from the rest of the country, much like their struggle has been omitted from the cinematic legacy of the war they helped to win.
“Anthropoid” opens on Friday, August 12.