There are no happy endings in Sean Ellis’ World War II drama “Anthropoid.” But should a new plan to honor the heroes portrayed within the new war drama pan out, the true story’s gruesome history might be forever altered in an unexpectedly positive way.
Ellis’ latest film follows the true story of Czechoslovakian resistance fighters Josef Gabčík (Cillian Murphy) and Jan Kubiš (Jamie Dornan), who undertook the nearly impossible mission to assassinate SS General Reinhard Heydrich in Prague in 1942. The plan ultimately resulted in the deaths of Kubiš, Gabčík and five other Czechoslovakian fighters – and while Heydrich didn’t die immediately as planned, he did succumb to his injuries soon after, altering the course of the war forever – and while the soldiers have long been national heroes, over seven decades have passed without a proper burial for their bodies.
Thanks to renewed interest in the unbelievable story of Operation Anthropoid, that could be changing soon.
“Because of this discussion that’s going on, the government have acted on information that they know where the bodies are,” Ellis recently told IndieWire, referencing a recent story by the BBC. “Now they’re going to excavate this grave, and they think that Kubiš and Gabčík are there. Their heads aren’t there, because they were decapitated, but the seven guys, they think, are in this grave.”
A Proper Ending
Per Ellis, should DNA testing prove that the bodies of the seven fighters – and, in particular, Kubiš and Gabčík – are in a mass grave in the Dablice cemetery (located just outside Prague), the Czech government intends to treat them with the utmost of respect.
“They are going to give them a proper burial, with memorials and all the rest of it, because they are the Czech heroes,” the filmmaker said.
Ellis looks a bit dazed when recounting the latest chapter in his 15-year quest to make “Anthropoid.” “It’s humbling in a weird way,” Ellis said. “That you’ve made something that’s pushed that even further and has then become part of the historical aspect of it.”
And for Ellis, that history was always of utmost importance.
The filmmaker first found out about Operation Anthropoid in 2001, when he saw a documentary about the mission and quickly became obsessed with the idea of turning it into a feature film. (The story has been dramatized before, including in the 1975 film “Operation Daybreak,” and a competing project, “HHhH,” is also in the works.) Making his “Anthropoid” soon became his obsession, but Ellis struggled when it came to cracking the most basic question of all: Why this story?
“They Were Ordinary Guys”
The director told IndieWire that he found himself stuck “trying to figure out, as a filmmaker, why I am obsessed with it, and what it is. I think once you find that out, then you can figure out what the film is.”
With time, he figured it out. “In its very basic terms, it’s about seven men that sacrificed their lives for their country,” he said. “They were ordinary guys, they weren’t super-soldiers, they were just ordinary people in extraordinary positions of fate.”
Over the next 15 years, Ellis set about creating a story that would honor the real Kubiš and Gabčík – and the people who idolize them – through detailed and copious research, innumerable visits to the Czech Republic and casting a pair of actors to star in his film that were as reverent of the material as their director was.
“You have a duty of responsibility,” Murphy recently told IndieWire when asked about handling such heavy material. “This event happened. These men lived and died. Their descendants are still around.”
Murphy was tasked with playing the more abrasive and mission-driven Gabčík, whose ability to open up to those around him – including Anna Geislerová as his love interest Lanka, along with Dornan as his mission partner Kubiš – goes through tremendous changes as the film approaches its heart-stopping finale.
Dornan serves as his foil, thanks to a complex role as the anxiety-ridden Kubiš, who opens the film unable to shoot an enemy who recently took aim at both men without a second thought. The actor was also nervous about playing such beloved men.
“You’re very conscious, on an everyday level, that you’re telling a real story, a real piece of history and you’re playing men who existed,” Dornan said. “I think it can be sort of paralyzing if that’s all you think about.”
But Dornan warns against such thinking interfering on actual performance. “You shouldn’t be taking that in between ‘action’ and ‘cut,'” he said. “You’ve got to forget about all that and just tell the truth of the scene. It certainly does carry its own weight when you’re playing real characters.”
Ellis admits he took some liberties with the film’s script – a necessity for storytelling – but believes that the film gets to the heart of the men it portrays.
“Obviously, we don’t know about the relationships, we don’t know about the personalities,” Ellis said. “That’s where, as a filmmaker, you come in and start building up a dramatic structure around historic events. That’s what you have license with.”
To round out the emotional beats of the film, both Kubiš and Gabčík are given love interests who participate in various aspects of the mission, including Geislerová as an amalgamation of various women that Gabčík met during his time in Prague and Charlotte Le Bon as Marie, a character based on a woman with whom many believe Kubiš had a passionate romance before being killed.
Those characters and relationships add an extra layer of emotion to the film, and Ellis is secure in his choice to include them. “You sort of navigate it through as an author and say, ‘What feels right? What do I do?'” he said. “So, in a weird way, you’re presenting a new version of all of these stories.”
“It Kind of Winds You”
Still, Ellis was dedicated to keeping things as real as possible whenever he could, especially as it relates to settings, locations and timelines. For the film’s final location, an Eastern Orthodox Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius, where the seven took their final refuge and endured a stunning six-hour battle the anchors the film’s last act, Ellis went all out.
“Historically, it’s very accurate,” he said. “That church was rebuilt to the plans. If you go to the real church, and you’ve seen the film, you couldn’t tell the difference between the two. You’d think we’d shot in the real church.”
“The film is as authentic as I think it could possibly be,” Murphy said. “Ultimately, you then have to go, ‘Right now, we’re making a piece of entertainment. We’re making a piece of cinema.’ Then you have to jump off, bravely.”
The mix of history and artistic license adds up to a potent war drama that doesn’t balk at delivering some swift emotional punches.
“One of my best mates said that he felt like someone kicked the shit out of him,” Dornan said. “It does do that to you.” Murphy agreed. “It just gets you,” he said. “It kind of winds you. It’s quite emotional.”
Both Dornan and Murphy pointed to Ellis’ deep research as being essential to not only the final product, but their experience in making the film.
“Sean places you in the environment pretty convincingly,” Dornan said. “The church stuff, you feel claustrophobic. You feel like you are being trapped in there with them, and there is no escape, and that’s totally what it felt like to shoot.”
“They just had no hope,” he continued. “You’re just watching them, knowing the inevitable. It’s very hard to watch.”
“Anthropoid” had its world premiere during Prague’s own Karlovy Vary Film Festival, where it debuted to a packed house of Czechs eager to see their heroes up on the big screen. The final result was a moment that still makes Dornan feel “a little funny” when he thinks about it.
“For the Czech people, this is a huge part of their culture and their history,” Dornan said. “To screen it there for the first time – in the biggest cinema I’ve ever been to in my life, it was 1,200 people, 90% of them were Czechs – it was fucking terrifying. You’re just desperate to please them and to have made something that they think is good and honorable and noble.”
For Ellis, it was the culmination of 15 years of hard work and dedication.
“The Minster of Defense sat next to me,” Ellis recalled. “And he turned to me and he was crying and he hugged me and he said, ‘You make me proud to be Czech.’ I just thought, ‘Well, that’s why I made it. You should be proud.'”
“Anthropoid” hits theaters on Friday, August 12.
Updated: This post was updated to include information about other Operation Anthropoid-centric features of past and future.